A battle over liability insurance coverage for groups using Oregon state property is brewing, and the Northwest Civil War Council is right in the middle of it.
In 2009, the Oregon State Legislature passed Senate Bill 311, which raised the liability lawsuit cap for claims against against state agencies from $500,000 to $3.2 million. In response, groups holding public events on state property are being required to carry more insurance and the increase is more than some groups can handle.
“The stakes are higher,” said David Solomon, safety-risk manager & sustainability coordinator for Oregon State Parks and Recreation. “We have to be mindful of liability factors.”
For the NW Civil War Council, which holds almost all of its events on state property, including its Fort Stevens Labor Day weekend battle, the price hike is putting a strain on funding. The group is a nonprofit entity that charges minimally for membership and barely makes enough to cover current costs. But this summer the group was forced to buy more insurance to be covered up to $4 million — an increase of $3,200 a year.
“We came dangerously close to cancelling our event at Fort Stevens,” said vice chairman of the council Scott Ingalls.
And while council president Steve Betschart said it’s almost “inconceivable” not to do the event because of how big a turnout the group gets. He said if they have to continue to pay $4,800 a year for insurance coverage they will likely have to cancel future battles. Betschart said the club has limited funding, but the costs are high for members. An authentic uniform, he estimates, is $1,000 and with gunpowder costing $10 a pound, the increased insurance only adds to the group’s negative balance.
“I don’t know about next year,” Betschart said.
Bill 311 originated out of a lawsuit against Oregon Health and Science University in which the rewarded amount was deemed inadequate. Lawmakers rectified the tort claims cap amount and by 2015, the Oregon Tort Claims Act will require groups to have $4 million in coverage.
But Ingalls said it still doesn’t solve the problem. Lots of different groups put on public events on state property, all with varying degrees of liability. Some are just vendors who sell merchandise at fairs, while others perform high-risk activities. Ingalls said he can’t imagine a vendor at the state fair needing to be covered up to $4 million.
Commercial Exhibits and Concessions Manager Wayne Peterson of the Oregon State Fair agrees.
“If they had to pay for these million dollar policies just to sell sunglasses they wouldn’t come,” he said. “This bill is something that wasn’t investigated very well when it was written.”
The bill has already affected events planned on the North Coast as well. In July, the yearly World War II re-enactment put on by the Friends of Old Fort Stevens had to be changed because the World War II reenactors couldn’t come up with the money to pay for the extra insurance. The NW Civil War Council followed that closely, but were able to find enough money to purchase one year of insurance to buy some time to plan for next year’s events.
“We have until July 30, 2011 to figure out what to do,” Betschart said. “We hope to motivate our good legislature to help.”
Oregon State Parks and Recreation has been to work with groups because of this issue. Solomon said the department has been trying to make compromises because they are well aware a lot of groups cannot afford the increased price.
“We assist event sponsors to assess their risks and evaluate insurance coverage and suggest ways they can reduce their risk,” Solomon said. “On a case-by-case basis, we can lower insurance requirements below the $3.2 million tort claims limit, if we can justify the risk exposure to the event sponsors and the State of Oregon.”
The NW Civil War Council was already locked into a contract for its event in Keizer over the Fourth of July, but Solomon said there were brief talks with the group about reductions. Solomon said in review of the groups liability, it had a sterling record. But in the end, Solomon’s boss, director of Oregon State Parks and Recreation Tim Wood, said there would be no reduction.
“I was very impressed with the safety measures,” Solomon said. “But our concerns are for the public. It’s the third party.”
Ingalls understands this and said it makes sense because the reenactors do use real gunpowder and fire it in real weapons, but he thinks there should be leniency in figuring out reductions.
“We have not had a claim or suit against us in the history of this club,” Ingalls said. “We are probably one of the most proactive groups in making our events safe in the state.”
Oregon State Parks and Rec Public Information Coordinator Chris Havel said its something they will work with the group on fixing, but sometimes the reality is it will cost more for some groups.
“It’s not that the NW Civil War Council was ineligible to have the insurance requirement lowered, it’s just that we had a new risk review process in place by then, and to lower the insurance requirement, we would need to work with the group to find ways to reduce the risk,” Havel said.
“Some groups are simply going to have to purchase more insurance to cover themselves,” he said. “We’re all living with that new reality.”
This is something the NW Civil War Council doesn’t want to hear. Ingalls said if the cost for insurance doesn’t lower, they will find other venues.
“If we can’t get this reduced, I will lobby at the club to get off state property,” Ingalls said.
This year’s event hasn’t changed While the insurance battel goes on, the NW Civil War Council’s planned Labor Day battle event will cary on as scheduled. From Sept. 4 to Sept. 6 approximately 700 soldier and civilian re-enactors will descend on the Fort Stevens Historical Area near Hammond.
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