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Litigiousness and the great outdoors – a risky mix

Outdoor Living

TREAD SOFTLY Rushing to sue the NPWS over an injury could have implications for everyone who enjoys Ireland’s national parks.

Opinion

Andrew O'Brien

You may have seen the case in the news recently of a Dublin woman who successfully sued the National Parks and Wildlife Service after she was injured in a fall while walking on the Wicklow Way. According to reports, the woman was walking along a boardwalk made of old railway sleepers when she fell and cut her leg, requiring seven stitches.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that cases such as this set a precedent that could affect how we use the environment around us – and potentially impact on the health of all of us.
Here in Ireland, we are lucky to have easy, free access to National Parks all around the country. We are also fortunate locally to have access to commonage, such as that around Croagh Patrick and in the Nephin Range. I have said here before that I have never seen a place like Westport, where people are out in all types of weather taking advantage of the natural environment around them. But legal cases like the one outlined above could start to eat away at that access.
We are constantly hearing from motor and health insurers that policy prices are going up because the cost of claims has gone up (don’t get me started on that one). You can bet the NPWS’s public-indemnity-insurance premiums will go up if claims start coming in against it.
And what form of indemnity insurance is there to cover common lands? If those farmers who use the commonage are hit with higher premiums, what will their response be? Is it within their rights to just lock the gates and say ‘Sorry, we can’t insure you, so you can’t use it?’. I hope not, but I would understand their reasoning if they did.
If the insurance costs of the NPWS rise, it may well have to charge for access to its lands. This isn’t unheard of in other countries, and a ‘user pays’ system can work. Indeed, in Australia the most popular parks have admission fees and the NPWS has annual memberships to allow access and camping in all parks. Income from the fees go towards the maintenance of these facilities.
The difficulty in Ireland is that most of the busiest National Parks have towns and villages within them, making charging for access almost impossible. Considering their small budget, and the low profile afforded to them by politicians, how would the NPWS get more money for park and trail upkeep? I’m not sure that the number of users would be high enough to cover a significant rise in premiums, much less the work required to maintain trails to a standard that would lower said premiums.
Similarly, if it’s possible to sue the park, where does that leave the volunteers of the Mountain Rescue Team? Nervous, most likely.
Australian and American parks have the advantage of campers staying for several days at a time and paying a fee to do so. National parks in Ireland don’t have the facilities to support such groups, regardless of how much encouragement you get from the weather. Given the accessibility of the parks, there is usually a number of accommodation options within striking distance that offer comfortable beds, hot showers and a cooked breakfast, but these are privately owned and raise no money for the parks.
At a time when Ireland, like all developed nations, is facing a health crisis as a result of obesity, the last thing healthy pastimes need is bad press and a reason to make people pay to exercise outside.
Sure, it’s possible to fall and hurt your leg while hill walking. In fact, it is possible for far worse than that to happen. But – and all due respect to anyone who has been injured while out hill walking – a few stitches is better than doing no exercise and developing Type 2 Diabetes.
In this case, I agree with the barrister working for the State Claims Agency, who argued that such pastimes should be covered by the doctrine of volenti non fit injuria: no wrong is done to one who consents.
Ultimately, and most importantly, making it harder for people to be healthy will be far more costly to the State in the long term.

Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200
or at www.wannarun.ie.