RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Parking Lot Safety and Signage - 06/23/2021
Kids have been playing in our parking lot and my board is concerned that they will hurt themselves...
Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Kids have been playing in our parking lot and my board is concerned that they will hurt themselves and we will be liable. We have a very vague policy about our parking lot being for patrons to park at only and a couple signs that say patron parking only. We can update our policy to be more specific if need be but their thoughts are no policy on our end will protect us if someone gets hurt and says they didn't know our policy so we need a sign posted that makes it clear we don't expect kids to be riding bikes, go carts, etc in our parking lot.

Our treasurer thought maybe just a "no trespassing" sign would work.
 

Another Library Director I know said they have a sign that reads:
         

          "Please No...

          Bicycling
          Loitering
          Roller Blading
          Skate Boarding

          On Library Property"

Would something more specific like that be a benefit or would it be worse because if they hurt themselves doing an activity other than those listed they can say they were in their right?


The kids are often waiting until the library is closed and I'm no longer there before they start riding around on it so simply being vigilant telling them to leave is not going to work.

Thanks so much for any guidance you can offer.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Behold, the humble skateboarder: wheels spinning, scabby knees, and (if they have gotten over the fact that even when worn by Tony Hawk, it looks dorky) brain carefully protected by helmet, ready for action.  Never has a humble sport posed more of a challenge to local governments, park designers, architects, and urban planners; lay down a relatively smooth surface, and there they are, ready to challenge both gravity and the rules governing property.

As a lawyer who studies[1] how the law impacts what people do--and how we do it--I find skateboarding fascinating.[2]  Since at least the late 80's,[3] in town meeting after town meeting, legal case after legal case,[4] site design after site design, public authorities and property owners have attempted to control when and where people can skate (and bike, and rollerblade, and hang out while watching others do those things).

That we as a society often fail at such prohibitions and dissuasions is shown by the magnitude of letters-to-the-editor and news reporting regarding parking lot/ramp/sidewalk incident and injury.[5]  It has also spawned an array of dangerous and off-putting site design, such as metal rivets on walkways and spikes on hardscaping.[6]

Of course, this question is not about skateboards, but rather, about signage effective enough to reduce risky activity and to avoid liability while keeping library premises welcoming to everybody.[7]

For any library, museum, or other public cultural institution wrestling with this issue, this poses a conundrum.  The mission of your institution is to be accessible, inclusive, and to serve your community.  Yet at the same time, the promotion of a safe parking lot and grounds during open hours is critical...while after-hours promotion of safety is just as important (especially if you offer 24-hour Wi-Fi that is accessible in the parking lot and grounds). 

How can an institution achieve this balance?

For an institution confronted by this issue, there is a five-step process that must be conducted:

STEP ONE: Confirm who legally owns and/or controls the parking lot and grounds.[8]  Does your library own the lot, or is it rented and subject to the terms of a lease?  What you learn during this step will show who has to solve this issue (with a landlord, collaboration will be required).

STEP TWO:  What insurance covers the lot, and what types of incidents are covered?  This step will provide insight into how your institution is set up to manage the risks you've identified.

STEP THREE:  What is the purpose of the parking lot and grounds?  What functions do those resources serve?  Hopefully, the uses are already limited to only things that serve the mission and plan of service of the library.  However, in the case of a lease or shared premises, that might not be the case.

STEP FOUR:  Confirm and harmonize everything from the first three steps. 

This fourth step sounds simple, but it can take many forms. 

For instance:

  • If the land is owned by the library, it will require verifying that no one else is using the lot (unless there is a lease and insurance covering the non-library use);
  • If a private party owns the lot but leases it to the library, it will require checking the terms of the lease; 
  • If a supporting municipality owns the lot, it will require confirming who truly controls the space;
  • If the property is insured for general liability, it will require contrasting what the insurance covers, with what it is being used for, and what it is intended for, and how it is being controlled;
  • If the property is not insured for general liability, it will involve assessing if/how the library is protected from liability.  

NOTE: For these reasons (and more), whenever, possible, "Step Four" should be done with a lawyer.

STEP FIVE: Only after completing Steps "One" through "FOUR" should a library board approve a signage plan.

Why these steps?  Because the details they draw out will help your library determine the final text of the signage, whittling it down from many permutations.  For instance:

  • A suburban library that leases its property within a strip mall will want to put most of the onus for liability back on their landlord (especially if parking facilities are shared with other tenants). 
  • A rural library with lots of its own land, but near a public park, has the luxury to post signage that says "Parking lot and grounds are for library activities only; please use ABC Park for recreational activities."
  • A city library located within a city-owned building may need to coordinate signage with a city department (or might not).
  • A library (in any location) that is neither designed nor insured to safely host any type of unsupervised recreational activity[9] on its grounds (whether in the parking lot, or the front yard, or on the roof) can post exterior signage that says: "No recreational activity on the grounds unless authorized by the Library."[10]

In addition to helping your library check all the boxes (ownership, risk management, mission, messaging), I advise this approach because it will position your library to give your signage some personality...something that projects the library’s values and mission out into the community.

For instance, there is nothing wrong, after your property/purpose/insurance analysis, with posting a friendly sign like this:

"Our parking lot is for the safety and convenience of

our Library's diverse and wonderful community.

Please limit your use of our lot to parking your bike or car

while using the services of the library."

Or, if the "personality" of your library is a bit less celebratory, and there has been collaboration with local law enforcement on the issue, and it has been determined that it is safest to employ some forceful messaging, the signage can say:

"Parking lot use limited to parking for

library patrons, employees, and vendors.

POLICE ENFORCED."[11]

Which brings me to the member's actual question:

"Would something more specific like [listing barred activities] be a benefit or would it be worse because if they hurt themselves doing an activity other than those listed they can say they were in their right?"

As you can see, I do not recommend barring a list of activities--partly for the reason in the question, but more fundamentally, because a list of “forbidden” activities only invites quibbling during enforcement (see footnote 9), which creates a needless headache. 

In my experience, those who actually have to enforce a policy (a director, a security officer, a police officer, a municipal employee), should be meaningfully consulted during its development, and are better served by a final product that positions them to quote a broad definition of purpose, together with a bar on unrelated activity, such as:

"This parking lot is for parking only.

No recreational use allowed at any time."

And finally, let's talk about that all-important STEP SIX: Dealing with the Human Factor.

We all know this: an institution can install signage six feet high, in flaming letters, and if someone wants to trespass on it after hours, that signage will not stop them.

If that is true, what is the purpose of the signage?

The purpose of the signage is 1) to promote safety; 2) to reinforce mission; and 3) to be able to show that, if injury occurs, the library in no way encouraged, condoned, or sanctioned the activity that caused it (and in fact, forbid it).

Now, while that is important, there is one other thing I must get out there while we're talking about limiting premises liability: just as critical as clear, enforceable signage is ensuring that the library is not maintaining a hazardous condition.

Why?  If the injury a trespasser experiences on property is related to a known defective condition (a pothole, for instance, or a heaved sidewalk) the owner/controller of the parking lot could still face liability.  To truly promote safety and guard against liability, an owner who invites the public onto their land must be able to show it was not "on notice" about the defect, or that if it was, it had taken adequate steps to protect the public from the hazard (surrounding the pothole by cones, or getting it temporarily filled with cold patch, for instance).

This is why a vigorous facility maintenance plan and deferred maintenance/contingency repair budget is just as--if not more--critical as proper parking lot signage.

In closing, I have to say: writing effective property signage is a tricky thing.[12]   Since there is no perfect way to do it, I advise aiming for something that clearly limits the use of the restricted property to its core function (in this case, parking), while also reinforcing the identity of the library as a community resource.  Here is a model to consider (after your library follows all the steps):

"To promote a safe and welcoming environment,

this parking lot is for parking and library-approved events only.

All other uses must be approved in writing by the library.

To inquire about using our lot for a community event, call ###-###-####."

...with shorter, smaller, punchier signs at key areas to reinforce the core message:

"No playing in our parking lot at any time.

Safety first!"

I wish all libraries reading this a reduced-risk, injury-free parking lot.



[1] In the field.

[2] I had a board in the 80's, but I only ever attained the level of skill shown in Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" video (which is to say: not very much).

[3] And maybe earlier?

[4] I like this one: People v Smith, 160 Misc 2d 1070 [Just Ct 1993]

[5] I am not going to cite a study here.  Rather, I will cite NY Insurance regulation 11 NYCRR 27.3, which includes in a list of specially elevated risks: "Asbestos, Fungi and Water Damage Remediation ... Amusement Parks and Carnivals Property...Amusement Rides and Devices ...including bumper cars, go-carts and go-cart tracks, giant slides, skateboard tracks, roller-blade tracks...."

When you want to know if something is statistically risky, ask an insurance carrier.

[6] These measures are also used to "dissuade" people from sleeping and getting comfortable in public spaces, an overlap worth contemplating.

[7] A skateboarder or roller-blader on a sidewalk or in a parking lot can pose a risk to a person walking with a small child or stroller, using a walker or wheelchair, or walking an animal.

[8] Although the question was confined to the "parking lot" I am adding "and grounds" since this issue doesn't just involve parking lot concerns.

[9] BMX bikes, skateboards, and roller-blades take the brunt of this type of issue, but frankly, does your director want to quibble over policy when a group of rogue folk-dancers hosts an event in the parking lot after-hours? 

[10] I like this last bullet because it reserves the right of a library to host a planned recreational event, but to otherwise bar them on the property.  Further, by avoiding the term "loitering," it reduces the risk of confusion for those who need to park or sit on the grounds after-hours to use a library's 24/7 free Wi-Fi.

[11] If you go with this one, confirm with your local PD that they will do this in a way that is consistent with the mission and role of the library.  NOTE: I appreciate that in some places, this will not be viewed as a viable option.  The mission of your library should be the guiding factor in deciding whether or not to involve law enforcement or private security in this type of policy.

[12] Whenever possible, it is good to use a licensed architect or credentialed municipal planner to design signage; they will pay attention to things like reflectivity, placement, font choice, and ADA accessibility.

Tags: Property, Public Libraries, Safety, Signage

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