Montana Lawmakers Look at Limiting Recreational Liability

By Kahrin Deines | January 15, 2009

Montana’s recreation businesses said it needs better protection from lawsuits because of high insurance costs.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering a bill that would limit the liability of the businesses, and shift it onto the shoulders of thrill-seekers involved in the risky activities.

The bill states that recreation providers, such as whitewater rafting companies or backcountry ski guides, cannot be held responsible for the “inherent risks” of an activity.

Members of the tourism and recreation industries appeared before lawmakers to offer their support for the bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dee Brown of Hungry Horse.

Brown says the bill is not intended to deter legitimate lawsuits, but to clarify there are unavoidable risks associated with recreation in “wild and wooly Montana.”

Brown, who owns a campground, introduced a similar bill during the 2005 legislative session, but it did not muster enough support to become law. Unlike that bill, the current legislation would not apply to government agencies, but does include both businesses and non-profits in its list of protected entities.

“It’s one part of a possible puzzle to set parameters on business costs in this economy,” said Brown, citing the importance of tourism to Montana’s economy.

A similar Wyoming bill protects outdoor recreation and sports providers from being held accountable for unavoidable risks.

In a hearing held on Jan. 13, 2009, the House committee heard from representatives of the tourism industry, such as the Montana Innkeepers Association, as well as outfitters, guides and snowmobilers.

“It’s not just for the high-profile, deep-pocketed ski areas, but it’s also for the small guys,” said David Smith, president of the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce. He said that much of Gallatin County’s some $1 billion a year in tourism revenues is generated by ice climbers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

These visitors, in turn, may not always understand the risks associated with recreational activities in the state, and may also lack Montanans’ sense of fairness, according to some of the speakers.

“Montanans may not be litigation hungry, but outfitters serve people from all over the world,” said Jean Johnson of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

Bob Jordan, owner of a West Glacier rafting company, agreed, saying the threat of litigation hangs like a “black cloud” over his business, especially in a cautious market where finding insurance has become increasingly burdensome.

“We in the tourism industry serve people throughout the world who tend to place blame,” he said.

The Montana Trial Lawyers Association opposed the bill, as it also did with the proposed 2005 law.

“What they want is a law so that they can go into a judge and say ‘throw this suit out,'” said Al Smith, a representative for the association.

Judges and juries, he said, should be allowed to decide such cases, not a group of legislators who have heard only an hour of testimony about a bill that could be applied to “everything from Hacky Sack to skydiving.”

Brown’s bill defines recreational activity broadly, including both standard sports, such as softball, and riskier ventures, such as target shooting or mountain climbing.

No action was taken on the bill during the committee hearing.

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