Officials fight for lifeguard protections

HONOLULU — Officials representing the state’s four major counties are opposing a House draft amendment that would remove immunity for county lifeguards from lawsuits related to the performance of their job.

The Hawaii State Association of Counties and Hawaii Council of Mayors are in favor of SB 562 moving to conference committee where the House and Senate representatives reconcile amendments to the bill. A hearing has not been scheduled yet.

The measure seeks to give immunity to lifeguards working at state beaches.

“With three weeks remaining in the legislative session, the Kauai delegation will continue to work to address the concerns raised by the counties,” said Nadine Nakamura, (D-14, Hanalei, Princeville, Kilauea, Anahola, Kapaa and Wailua Houselots).

Act 170, which protects county lifeguards from all types of lawsuits — including state and county beaches — is scheduled to sunset on June 30.

A Senate draft of SB 562, however, proposed extending immunity to county lifeguards to 2021.

Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee amended the bill, which would give lifeguards only on state beaches immunity from being sued.

Reps. Nakamura, Jimmy Tokioka (D-15, Wailua, Hanamaulu, Lihue, Koloa, Omao) and Dee Morikawa (D-16, Niihau, Lehua, Koloa and Waimea) worked together to find a compromise.

“The counties were hoping to repel that sunset date or get an extension that would continue to provide county lifeguards with qualified immunity,” said County Chair Mel Rapozo Wednesday. “Instead of providing quality immunity, you have the state attorney general defend the county lifeguard stations only on state beaches.”

House Judiciary Chair Rep. Scott Nishimoto (D-21, Kapahulu,McCully, Moiliili) amended the measure to provide a balanced and fair bill that addresses the safety and protection of lifeguards and the public.

“No other first responders, such as firefighters, police officers, or EMT ambulance personnel have statutory immunity to perform their duties at a level below reasonable care,” he said in a statement.

If he had his way, Rapozo said he would like immunity for all first responders.

Among the 406 county lifeguards throughout the state, only 30 are stationed on state beaches, Rapozo said.

About 90 percent of ocean safety personnel stationed on county, public beaches would be vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits whenever they risk their lives saving others under the house draft of this bill, Rapozo said.

“This could be exposure to liability which would hurt the county and all of its taxpayers,” he said. “More importantly, this will affect the public safety of our beaches and possibly public access to many of our beaches on all four counties.”

Monty Downs, president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association, declined to comment on the issue, citing the delicacy of the ongoing deliberations.

On Oahu, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said six lifeguards will be protected on Yokohama Bay, leaving 230 lifeguards exposed to liability.

“We have the best water safety people in the world,” he said. “The guys on each one of our islands are heroes in ways you’ll never know.”

The state would have to pay $3 million a year in order to keep lifeguards on four beaches, said Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa.

“The county has hundreds of beaches we have to work with. You can see where this cost has to be gotten from some place else,” he said. “It comes from our taxpayers. We are responsible to our public to provide the best protection possible.”

Nishimoto said the current law leaves members of the public without any way to seek justice.

“If your loved one is hurt or dies due to negligence, would you not want the right to seek resolution?” he said. “Under the current law, you have no recourse.”

The No. 1 goal for the counties is to ensure public safety, said Wil Okabe, representing Hawaii County.

“It’s demoralizing for the lifeguard to be able to go to through this type of bill. They’re putting their lives on the line,” he said. “The public needs to understand that we live in Hawaii, surrounded by the ocean. The lifeguard is a vital employee.”

Mayor Bernard Carvalho said if the bill is passed, it will also put beachgoers at risk.

“Our county lifeguards are saving lives … and they want to continue to provide these life-saving services to our residents and our visitors,” he said.

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TGI reporter Jenna Carpenter contributed to the story.

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