Bill Signing 2016

Pictured with Gov. Scott Walker are: Jason Culotta, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce senior director of government relations; Devin LeMahieu, representing Sen. Frank Lasee; Lori Severson, Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners executive director; James Button, Evergreen Campsites & Resort owner; Bert Davis, Badgerland Campground owner; State Rep. Joel Kitchens; Adam Malsack, Lake Arrowhead Campground owner; and Bud Styer, Smokey Hollow Campground owner.

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed dozens of bills into law March 30 in Madison, one of them capped off a decade of effort by the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO) by granting private campground owners immunity from civil liability in cases of camper property damage, injury or death in many cases.

In effect, campgrounds and their owners/operators or employees are only liable for willful acts or omissions.

Unusual as it may sound, it’s a simple law — only three sentences spanning a mere dozen lines on the page — but one that took two attempts over a decade and had to overcome the objections of Wisconsin’s trial attorneys. In fact, a similar bill passed in 2006, but then-Gov. Jim Doyle, an attorney by trade, declined to sign it.

WACO Executive Director Lori Severson recently agreed to answer a few questions from Woodall’s Campground Management about the new law as well as the March WACO Convention and Trade Show in Stevens Point and her optimism for the year ahead.

WCM: The signing of the campground immunity bill two weeks ago was a major milestone. What, if anything, does the bill do for WACO’s campground owners?

Severson: Basically, what it does for us is it gives us immunity from everything except negligence. We had to work pretty hard to get it past the trial attorneys, but we ended up with 99% of what we wanted.

WCM: How did you respond to the pushback from attorneys who obviously felt that the new law lets campground owners unfairly off the hook?

Severson: We just wanted parity with the state parks. What we’re really trying to do, in the words of Bud Styer (WACO board member and owner of Smokey Hollow Campground), is take care of stupid. If you bring your skateboard to a campground and slip and fall and hurt yourself, that’s not our fault.

Obviously it’s our fault if we’re doing construction and leave a big hole and don’t put up a warning. We’re not trying to get away from that. But there were some silly lawsuits, and even if they’re stupid and you win, you still lose because you have to pay attorneys. That’s the big deal.

WCM: What was the process for getting this into law?

Severson: After 2006, we had to start over. A new administration, with Scott Walker taking office in 2011, helped. We had to find representatives who would work with us and sponsor the bill.

Bud Styer has really done a great job of getting to know all of the representatives and make sure people know who we are. It really make a difference when they understand your industry. Bud is our ‘Tell it like it is’ guy, and he’s branded himself with that Hawaiian shirt. Everybody in the capitol knew to expect that of Bud. We got 18 representatives who co-sponsored it along with five senators.

WCM: That, of course, wasn’t the only notable event for WACO in March, with your convention and trade show running March 16-20. How did that go, and how did it help shape your expectations for the remainder of 2016?

Severson: The conference was really great. The response to the speakers was great and a lot of the vendors are coming back next year. I have very good expectations and am very excited. The weather’s going to break this weekend, a lot of campgrounds are opening up and we’re really excited. In addition, RV dealers are telling us that RV sales are good, so we’ve got great expectations for 2016.