Lifeguard liability bill resuscitated

  • Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo
    Hawaii County lifeguard Ben Fisher patrols Hapuna Beach on an ATV.

State lawmakers have performed CPR on a lifeguard liability bill that was all but sunk in the legislative session.

The bill protecting county lifeguards from lawsuits is heading to a conference committee, after the House on Thursday disagreed with changes the Senate made to the bill.

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The state contracts with counties to provide lifeguard protection at the state’s busiest beaches.

But the roughly 350 county lifeguards lost their liability protection last June, when a law expired that had protected them for the past 15 years. Gov. David Ige earlier vetoed a bill extending their protections because he was concerned the bill went too far, putting the state on the hook even if the lifeguards were negligent in their duties.

The protections are now included in House Bill 2097, a gut-and-replace amendment to an appropriations bill giving the state Department of Land and Natural Resources money to staff state and county beaches statewide with lifeguards.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona, was one of the sponsors of the original bill. She said Friday she supports the lifeguard protection as well as funding that could be used to put lifeguards at Kua Bay.

The Hawaii State Association of Counties and the Hawaii Council of Mayors both listed making the protection permanent one of their highest priorities for the 2018 legislative session. The bills endorsed by the groups protect the state, county and the lifeguard from liability.

“HSAC continues to advocate for liability protections for any person employed by the county to provide lifeguard services at all beach parks, whether state or county,” HSAC president Dru Kanuha, who represents Kona on the Hawaii County Council, said Friday.

Others are dubious. The Hawaii Association for Justice, representing personal injury attorneys and other consumer lawyers, says state tort law already protects lifeguards who are sued during the course of their duties.

“The counties are unable to identify even one instance when a county had to defend and pay for a lifeguard acting in the course and scope of their employment at a state beach park because there simply is none,” Nahelani Webster said in testimony. “Just as there have been no instances where lifeguards have lost personal assets, there have been no instances where the state has failed to honor its obligations to protect lifeguards and counties.”

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After hearing testimony from the state attorney general, the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees on Tuesday added language clarifying that the state is not required to defend a county from claims made against the county for the county’s negligence or wrongful acts or omissions.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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