Lifeguards to lose lawsuit immunity

LIHUE — Even with the threat of being open to lawsuits, lifeguards will continue to man their respective towers this summer.

“While it is unfortunate that the state decided not to provide liability protection to our county lifeguards, I am committed to continuing the Kee Beach lifeguard tower and our islandwide roving patrol unit,” said Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. “More importantly, our lifeguards are committed to continuing to provide their services.”

Act 170, which protects lifeguards at every beach from lawsuits if something goes wrong while they are performing their duties, is scheduled to sunset on June 30.

During the 2017 legislative session, Senate Bill 562, which aimed at repealing the sunset rule, was introduced at the request of the Hawaii State Association of Counties.

When it was put on the floor, SB 562 sought to make protections for county lifeguards permanent. But as it went through the legislative process, the provision to repeal the sunset portion of the bill was removed.

The bill now only protects lifeguards who work at state beaches.

House Judiciary Chair, Rep. Scott Nishimoto, said the immunity wasn’t fair to other first responders, like firefighters, police officers or EMTs who don’t have that protection.

Another concern was taking away a person’s right to sue if something negligent happened.

On Kauai, even though Kee is a state beach, it is manned by county lifeguards, so they will no longer be protected, said Sarah Blane, county spokeswoman.

“The fire chief, county attorney and I recently met with all of our lifeguards to discuss their understandable concerns and assure them that they are supported,” Carvalho said. “I remain hopeful that our legislators will reconsider their position next session. In the meantime, we have the utmost confidence in our lifeguards that they are performing their duties to the best of their abilities.”

Kauai lifeguards have been protected by Act 170 for 15 years, said Dr. Monty Downs, president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association.

“Does the county feel comfortable with the exposure of having their lifeguards covering state beach parks, i.e. Kee?” he said. “Fifteen years ago, the answer was no. When the act didn’t exist, the county pulled their guards from Kee. And when Act 170 was passed, the county decided it was comfortable with this degree of exposure.”

But much has evolved since then, he said.

“Fortunately, times have changed. Our 15 years of experience has shown that with lifeguards there (Kee), people are no longer drowning there,” he said.

With the sunset, the administration had two choices, Downs said.

“Should the county reduce services, pull the lifeguards from Kee, terminate the roving patrol program and the Jet Ski and ATV programs and go back to the old days of a lifeguard sitting in a tower and guarding the beach 50 yards on either side. And let people die,” he said. “Or, should the county continue with the phenomenal work that our lifeguards do, guard our island as best as possible, swallow the state’s slap in the face, do the right thing and protect our people and our visitors?”

He said Carvalho should be commended for his decision.

“Mr. Carvalho is a man who has a clear understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong, and he did not hesitate to make the right decision — to keep our ocean safety services intact,” he said.

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