Insurance problems close New York snowmobile trails

After several tense days of uncertainty and thousands of miles of closed trail due to an insurance snafu, New York’s Gov. George Pataki announced a resolution with the insurer.
Under the new agreement, Northfield Insurance Company will offer comprehensive coverage on all its snowmobile trail-related policies currently written, those up for renewal and for clubs seeking insurance.
“There had to be some sort of resolution right away, otherwise it would have been chaos,” said Jim Jennings, executive director for the New York State Snowmobile Association. “There were people just chomping at the bit to get out riding, and probably would have no matter what. It would have been a disaster.”
New York’s system of arranging insurance from a club level isn’t so different than many other states, said Christine Jourdain, executive director of the American Council of Snowmobile Associations. Some states do use their state association or department of natural resources to organize the coverage, but individual clubs buy the policies.
“If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to know your insurance company,” she said. “The state association did have a master policy six or seven years ago, but the clubs wanted to go out and get there own,” Jennings said. “I think it’s important for all clubs and snowmobilers to band together.”
New York snowmobile clubs who purchased trail liability insurance this year through Northfield Insurance were surprised by a clause that excluded claims for accidents on private property. Without this clause, landowners could be held liable for any injuries occurring on their land.
Clubs who already have coverage from Northfield will receive a written confirmation from Northfield of this additional coverage.
The insurance mix-up threatened to close 8,000 miles of the state’s 9,100 miles of trails on private lands.
At least two state senators, Paul Tokasz of Cheektowaga, N.Y., and Joseph Morelle of Irondoquoit, N.Y., appealed to New York Governor George Pataki to resolve the issue. Other groups, including the International Snowmobile Manufactures Association and the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, discussed a plan to pursue fraud charges against the insurance company through New York’s attorney general.
At the end of last season, the long-time insurer for 140 of New York’s clubs chose not to renew its policies. In its search of other insurers, only Northfield Insurance Co., a subsidiary of Travelers Property Casualty, agreed to underwrite the policies — with premium increases averaging two-and-a-half times the previous premiums.
Clubs in Oneida County, which has now closed all of its trails, saw an average of a 289% increase in premiums, said Oneida County Area Snowmobile Association president C. Lee Hinkleman Sr. Oneida County has 560 miles of trail.
Clubs which then received the written policies from Northfield in December, were surprised to find a clause excluding snowmobile accident coverage, and wording on the policy indicates private landowners would not be covered if an accident occurred on their property.
Clubs responded by shutting down trials, urging snowmobilers to respect the closures and working with to resolve the situation.
Trails not on private lands, including ungroomed seasonal roads, remained open. Portions of the Tug Hill plateau were also unaffected.
T.S. Seller, of Brantingham, N.Y., said his club, the Brantingham Snowmobile Club, closed its trails, though many run through public lands.
Invariably, he said, the trails cut across small sections of private property. “We don’t even want to risk it,” he said.
“I think we’re going to look back on this and say it was the best thing that happened to snowmobiling in New York,” said Rick Engasser, Clarence, N.Y., member of the Cherry Creek Sno-Goers. About 20% to 25% of New York snowmobilers are members of snowmobile clubs, and Engasser feels these closures will make riders aware of the importance of organized snowmobiling. “If we didn’t have the New York State Snowmobile Association working on this, we wouldn’t have had it resolved this quickly,” he said.
“The quick resolution of this issue once again proves Gov. Pataki’s strong commitment to outdoor recreation and the vital role snowmobiling plays in many upstate communities,” Department of Conservation Commissioner Erin M. Crotty said. “The cooperative effort to preserve this important winter activity will ensure that snowmobilers continue to have access to some of the best trails in North America during the peak of the season.”
Snowmobiling has an estimated economic impact of $733 million in New York.

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