Fearing Lawsuits, Dubuque Restricts Sledding

Jan 14, 2015

On a cold, blustery day in Dubuque, Iowa, a giggly, 5-year old named Etta McCarthy was bundled up in pink snow gear at Bunker Hill Golf Course. 

5 year-old Etta McCarthy
Credit Lindsey Moon / Iowa Public Radio

Etta and her dad, Justin, don’t usually go sledding here, but a new ordinance severely restricting where they can sled just went into effect. Now this is one of only two places where sledding is allowed on city property. Those caught sledding down restricted hills, could face a steep trespassing fine.

Dubuque resident Jason Wemmer was also out sledding with his kids at Bunker Hill. He’s concerned that some kids won’t be able to get to one of those two parks.

“I think it’s a little ridiculous. Like, there are going to be less fortunate kids,” he pointed to the hill. “There are parents, you know, they get home from work. That’s the last thing they want to do is take their kids to two separate places. ” 

The city says it doesn’t want to be the Grinch of winter fun, but it has a responsibility to protect tax payers. City Councilman Kevin Lynch points to cases in two other Iowa Cities.

In states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, large sledding lawsuits haven't prevailed because state recreational immunity laws offer some liability protection.

“There’s a state law that says that municipalities are not liable for accidents that occur on city property that would come from activities like skateboarding or roller blading or unicycling or kayaking, things like that, but noticeably absent from that list is sledding.” 

Sioux City was involved in a nearly 2.8 million dollar lawsuit after a man was paralyzed when he crashed into a stop sign. And in Boone, a young girl slid into a concrete barrier covered with snow and was awarded 12 million dollars.

In states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, large sledding lawsuits haven’t prevailed because state recreational immunity laws offer some liability protection.

Alison Henderson Park and Bunker Hill Golf Course are the only two of Dubuque's 50 parks that still allow sledding.
Credit Lindsey Moon / Iowa Public Radio

During the past two legislative sessions, Iowa House Republican Chip Baltimore has introduced a bill to add sledding to the list of activities covered under Iowa state code, but it’s failed in the Democratically controlled Iowa Senate.

Baltimore’s bill wouldn’t have helped Sioux City or Boone because the cities were found negligent, but if passed, cities would be afforded more liability protection than currently exists.

“I think we’ve all fallen off of our sled and twisted an arm or twisted an ankle or something like that, and I think sledding is a great opportunity for kids to get outside in the middle of winter and have some fun,” Baltimore says. “I can’t think of a better place to do that than in a city park or in a county park or something like that.”

Dubuque city officials say that if lawmakers eventually pass that measure, they’ll take steps to reverse the ban. Until then, kids like Etta McCarthy, will have to sled on private property or at one of two city parks.