Gov. David Ige could veto lifeguard protection bill

LIHUE — Some Kauai lawmakers aren’t surprised Gov. David Ige is thinking about vetoing a bill that will take away lifeguards’ protection against lawsuits who protect state beaches.

“What we had in place for the past 15 years worked, and we need to go back to that by either extending the liability immunity sunset date or making it permanent,” said state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, D-15. “I will continue to support our lifeguards and work with Mayor Carvalho to ensure local residents, visitors and our lifeguards are safe and protected.”

State Rep. and House Majority Floor Leader Dee Morikawa, D-16, said she’s not surprised because she believes the bill was a compromise between the legislators.

“(It) did give lifeguards more legal representation than any other first responder employee,” she said.

Senate Bill 562, which relates to lifeguard tort liability, was on the list. Ige said he doesn’t agree with the measure because “it requires the attorney general to defend the counties for any civil action or proceeding, without exception.”

Tokioka said he doesn’t agree with Ige’s reasoning.

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.

In an effort to make that protection permanent, SB 562, which aimed at repealing the sunset rule, was introduced at the request of the Hawaii State Association of Counties.

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 county 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.

Morikawa said she sees both sides of the argument.

“I would have rather seen the immunity law be extended, but we may continue this discussion especially since victims may need the right to litigation in some instances,” she said.

As it stands, the bill requires the attorney general to defend any civil action or proceeding brought in any court against a county, based on any negligent or wrongful act or omission of a lifeguard who provides lifeguard services at a state beach park.

For Kauai, that means county lifeguards stationed at Kee Beach will no longer be protected.

Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said county lifeguards will continue to protect beach-goers despite the possibility of being open to lawsuits. He said he has confidence that lifeguards will perform their duties to the best of their abilities.

“Our county lifeguards willingly put themselves at risk daily to protect our residents and visitors from dangerous ocean conditions,” he said.

While a veto is “discouraging,” Carvalho said the county is committed to support its lifeguards.

“It is clear to me that if a lifeguard was negligent that there would not be cause for indemnification,” Tokioka said.

Tokioka said keeping Act 170 alive has been a passion since he was elected into office 11 years ago.

“I lobbied hard to keep our ocean safety officers indemnified from lawsuits while protecting our locals and visitors at our beaches,” he said. “I introduced House Bill 35 in 2007 that would have made the extension that was in place during that time permanent.”

Ige has until July 11 to sign or veto bills. Any bill that is not vetoed or signed becomes law without the governor’s signature.

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