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Make your event fun and safe!

June 17, 2014 | Land Trust Alliance | Washington, D.C.

Public access to conservation land is not fun when people get hurt.  According to recent news articles, obstacle races like Tough Mudder demonstrate what not to do when inviting the public out into nature.

In the past few months, obstacle course racing has shown up in the news for a number of alarming safety issues. In May of this year, the Center for Disease Control released a study correlating Tough Mudder races to an outbreak of explosive diarrhea due to exposure to campylobacter coli from cow feces. In April of this year, the parents of a participant filed a lawsuit against Tough Mudder for wrongful death. Their son drowned in 2013, at a Tough Mudder event where hundreds of participants jumped into a 15 foot deep pool of muddy water.  Also in 2013, health officials confirmed an outbreak of norovirus at a Tough Mudder event.

Land trusts can avoid these safety issues and others by taking simple precautions when organizing recreational events.

Water Safety

When organizing any events in or near water, be sure to provide adequate supervision and make sure participants know not to drink the water or get it in their mouths.

Food Safety

When organizing events where you’ll be providing food, make sure those serving food take precautions to prevent food-borne illnesses.

Animal Safety

Be sure to inform participants of any animals that may be dangerous – either because they carry diseases or because they don’t like to be disturbed – and teach them ways to avoid them.

Plant Safety

Be sure to inform participants of any plants that may cause allergic reactions and help them avoid these plants if necessary.

Bug Bites

Bug bites can spread disease and allergic reactions. Make sure participants are aware of the risks and take any necessary precautions.

Emergency Communications

Arrange for a way to communicate with emergency services if the need arises. Cell phones, satellite phones, and personal locator beacons are all possibilities to consider depending on your event. Or have the volunteer EMT or ambulance on standby if you are at an especially remote rugged location or holding a strenuous event.

Tour Safety

Have at least two trained tour leaders if you have a organized group event; have more safety committee members at larger events to prevent tragedies and lesser accidents.

Beyond precautionary measures, land trusts can manage their risk by being aware of protections that exist for nonprofits that choose to arrange public recreation. Depending on your state, you may be able to ask participants to sign waivers accepting some of the risk.

See the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association's Indemnity Agreements and Liability Insurance at for four guides and a Model Release to help with understanding and reducing the risk of liability from public access.

Your state may also have recreational use statutes that limit liability for recreational use. Even with an economic benefit, state recreation liability law can protect land trusts as shown by a recent Massachusetts case summarized below:

A tourist sued after she fell inside a historic church while on a tour sponsored by a nonprofit foundation. She claimed the Massachusetts recreational use statute did not bar liability on her negligence claims and that she was entitled to remedies for unfair and deceptive trade practices under the consumer protection act. The trial judge found against her and the appeals court upheld the trial court judgment.

The foundation pays the church for the right to operate tours. No one charged a fee to enter or tour the church. The visitor asserted that the foundation lost its protection because it generates revenue and pays an annual fee. The court wrote that the foundation’s other income and financial relationship with the church did not create an indirect fee,  distinguishing this case from other precedents in which an indirect fee was found to exist, thereby depriving the defendants in those cases from the statute’s protection.

The court also rejected the claim that because the church was not in compliance with certain accessibility requirements it may be liable under the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Act. The court found the foundation and church had not been fraudulent or deceitful by encouraging church visitors to sit in the pew boxes. See the decision in Patterson v. Christ Church, Massachusetts Appeals Court, No. 13-P-354, April 3, 2014.

Want to learn more about risk management? Check out the first edition of the Alliance’s A Guide to Risk Management for Land Trusts »

As an Alliance member you can take advantage of a free, affiliate membership with the Nonprofit Risk Management Center »

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