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Bill to Protect Private Airport Owners Passes Wisconsin Legislature

Able Flight
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed SB 321 into law in Madison on April 16, limiting liability exposure for owners of private airports. The law, passed by both legislative branches in February, includes the phrase "recreational aviation" to Wisconsin's recreational land use statute. Jonathan Harger of the EAA advocacy and safety team (third from right) represented EAA at the bill signing ceremony.

February 20, 2014 - An EAA-supported bill to limit liability exposure for owners of private airports passed the both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature this week and is awaiting signature by Gov. Scott Walker.

The bill, introduced by Senator Joseph Leibham and Rep. Paul Tittl in their respective chambers, adds the phrase "recreational aviation" to Wisconsin's recreational land use statute as one of a number of protected activities.

"This legislation permits land owners in Wisconsin to allow the public onto their land for the purpose of recreational aviation activities without the risk of crippling financial exposure should a participant become injured," said Jonathan Harger, EAA government advocacy specialist. "This brings aviation in line with other power sports with similar land use risk profiles, like ATV and snowmobile riding, which were already enumerated in the recreational use statute."

Many private airport owners have been reluctant to allow the public to use their charted or uncharted landing strips due to fear that if a visiting pilot had a mishap while landing on their property, the landowners could become involved in an expensive lawsuit initiated by either the mishap pilot, his heirs, or his insurance company. Even if the airport owners knew that they were not culpable and that they would ultimately be found not responsible for an incident, the cost of defending oneself and family from such a lawsuit is enormous.

With the shield from liability, EAA believes that owners will be far less likely to close airports because of financial planning concerns and more likely to welcome the public onto their airports, providing the state with a larger number of aviation access points. EAA had testified before the Wisconsin legislature in support of the measure.

"These small, private airports are a vital part of any state's transportation infrastructure, and the fact that so many of them remain unavailable to the public or at risk of closure because of liability concerns is troubling," Harger said. "Our experience in Wisconsin was a model of how the aviation community can continue to work with elected representatives until similar legislation is enacted in every state."

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