When Niagara County Parks Commissioner Timothy R. Horanburg decided to ban plastic sleds from the Bond Lake Park hill this winter, he thought he was protecting the county from lawsuits.
After all, the county had faced two suits filed on behalf of children injured in accidents.
But County Legislature Majority Leader Shirley G. Urtel, R-Cambria, changed all that in the week after Christmas. Urtel took her children to the park to sled and was turned away. Angry, she made some calls, and the ban was lifted.
Now, there's a problem.
A short time after the ban was lifted, there was another accident involving a plastic sled -- possibly the most serious yet.
Merry L. Hedges, 53, of North Tonawanda has hired a lawyer to sue the county over three cracked vertebrae she suffered Jan. 20 when another sledder crashed into her during the Bond Lake Winterfest.
Hedges' attorney, Samual J. Civiletto of Niagara Falls, said, "It was a very dangerous hill. There may not have been enough supervision that day."
Said Legislator Gerald R. DeFlippo, R-Lockport, "The person who ran into somebody should be liable."
Civiletto said, "If I find out who he is, we can do that, too." Horanburg said the man's identity was not known.
As for Hedges' accident, "It has to be negligence, knowing previous problems with that hill," Civiletto said.
Hedges declined an interview upon Civiletto's advice, but he related her version of events at Winterfest.
He said Hedges went sledding with her daughter and two grandchildren. After the children went down the hill on plastic disks at about 1:45 p.m., Hedges headed downhill on a molded plastic sled.
"She was about three-quarters of the way down when she felt a sharp pain in her back," Civiletto said. "She fell off (her sled), flipped over and was in excruciating pain. She landed on her right side."
Hedges had been struck by a man on a sled, whom Civiletto said she never saw.
Hedges was taken to Mount St. Mary's Hospital, Lewiston, where her back was X-rayed. The next day, a radiologist told her she had three cracked lumbar vertebrae.
There had been two earlier accidents involving plastic sleds.
On Jan. 8, 1995, Stephanie Golba of Lewiston, then 9, suffered permanent facial scars when her plastic slider struck another girl on the hill. Her parents sued the county but lost the case. The judge ruled that there are certain risks inherent in sledding.
Another case is pending. It involves Matthew Browning of Lewiston, who was 5 when he broke his leg Jan. 26, 1997. His parents' suit says his sled struck some frozen hay bales at the bottom of the hill.
Horanburg said the bales are placed there to provide a soft landing, and they are supposed to be turned over every day to keep them from freezing.
Lawrence D. Jasinski, Erie County commissioner of parks, recreation and forestry, said he knows of one suit pending against the county over a sledding accident in an Erie County park in the late 1990s.
He said Erie County offers sledding at seven parks, which are staffed by park rangers with first-aid training.
"We don't have a rule against (plastic sleds), but in my opinion, they're dangerous," Jasinski said.
Sleds with metal runners have long been banned in both counties.
Allen James, a state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation spokesman, said the only state parks in the Buffalo-Niagara region that offer sledding are Fort Niagara, Reservoir and Beaver Island state parks. He said there are supervisors assigned to each. Sledding is prohibited in all other state parks in Erie and Niagara counties.
Horanburg said the steep Bond Lake hill, the only designated sliding area in a Niagara County park, is about 100 feet high and 150 yards wide. It was originally constructed for skiing but hasn't been used for that purpose in decades.
Urtel, who made sure there would be sledding during Winterfest, has no regrets on her stand.
"You take certain risks when you step onto a sledding hill," said Urtel. "I'm still of the same opinion. I think the county goes out of its way to make the hill safe, through grooming and what have you."
When Urtel went to the park with her children during Christmas vacation, she discovered that sleds were banned, and only inner tubes were allowed on the hill. Horanburg announced his intention to impose the rule in December 1999.
After taking her children to sled in Reservoir State Park in Lewiston, Urtel went home and got on the phone.
"(Urtel) called me and wanted to know the circumstances," Horanburg said. "I explained to her about the plastic sleds and the past lawsuits."
Urtel then called DeFlippo, who at the time was chairman of the Legislature's Parks Committee.
"She did call me, and she wanted to know why sledding was banned," DeFlippo said. "She didn't really force me (to change the policy). I could have said no."
But instead, Horanburg got a call from DeFlippo instructing him to allow sleds again.
Horanburg said he's through acting on his own.
"When someone tells me (sleds) are banned again, I'll ban them," he said.