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Communities around the country are pursuing active living and healthy eating strategies in a variety of settings.  Public health advocates have been working to develop policies relating to Safe Routes to School, recreational use of school property, community and school gardens, and worksite wellness programs.  However, these efforts sometimes encounter barriers with administrators and governmental officials based on fears of liability.

What is liability?

Liability is a legal responsibility for injury or damages. Typically, to be held liable for someone else’s injuries, the injured person must prove that:

  • A legal responsibility (a “duty of care”) exists to protect others from harm;
  • Someone failed (“breached”) to meet the duty of care;
  • An individual is injured (“damaged”) in some way; and
  • The damage was caused by that breach in the duty of care (“causation”).

Liability graphic The obligation someone has to protect someone else from harm depends on the situation. The general expectation is that people act “reasonably” toward others, given the circumstances. If someone fails to act with as much care as an ordinary, reasonable person in a given situation, and that failure results in harm or injury, then that individual is usually considered to be “negligent.” The law recognizes a range of legal responsibility and injuries.  There are situations where a person or entity is held to a higher legal responsibility (“strict liability”) or lower legal responsibility (“willful wanton” or “gross negligence”) to protect another from harm. If a failure to exercise the care required by law results in a legally-recognized injury, it is called a “tort” and can lead to a civil lawsuit. 

Are there any legal defenses to liability?

The most common defense to liability is immunity.  Immunity is a legal doctrine that exempts a certain individual or entity from duties that the law generally requires other citizens or entities to meet. The duty an individual or entity has to meet is defined by law. If an individual or entity has immunity from a certain legal requirement, this immunity can be used as a defense against a lawsuit and provide a basis to have the lawsuit dismissed by a court.


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Finding Space To Play (2012)

School recreational facilities can provide valuable space for community recreational activity. However, schools and communities must navigate a number of policy and legal considerations when schools open their property for community recreational use. This report provides a comprehensive overview of the legal and policy issues impacting community recreational use of school property, and a review of the state and local policy initiatives.