Law that protects Hawaii lifeguards from liability proves controversial

Law that protects Hawaii lifeguards from liability proves controversial

LIHUE, KAUAI (HawaiiNewsNow) - County lifeguards could be pulled from state beach parks this summer if a law protecting them from being sued on the job expires in June.

Since 2008, Act 170 allowed the county to post lifeguards at popular Kee Beach on Kauai's North Shore -- and there hasn't been a drowning there since.

But the law was temporary, and the push to make it permanent is proving surprisingly controversial.

Much of the opposition is coming from the Hawaii Association for Justice, a group made up of attorneys, which is arguing that liability protection compromises the safety of beachgoers because lifeguards might perform their job poorly.

Lifeguards and others are pushing back, though, saying the law saves lives.

Other state beach parks that could lose lifeguards if the law expires are Kaena Point, Makena Beach on Maui, and Hapuna Beach on Hawaii Island.

Because of the popularity of Kee Beach, Kauai County's Ocean Safety Bureau Chief Kalani Vierra says it's critical to keep lifeguards there.

"The ocean and the conditions in this particular area can be dangerous. There's a natural channel on the west end of the lagoon that creates a really strong current sucking out towards the Na Pali Coast," he said.

He added that it's vital that the lifeguards don't have to worry about getting sued when they're on the beach.

"They can really concentrate on their job and not worry about liability," Vierra said.

In 2016, Kee lifeguards conducted 28 rescues and 24,936 preventative interactions with beachgoers to warn them of dangerous ocean conditions.

If the county had to pull its lifeguards from the beach, Vierra says the closest rescue team would be at least 10 minutes away.

"When an emergency goes down, seconds are valuable," said Vierra.

The law, which doesn't apply to cases of reckless behavior, is set to expire at the end of June.

Hawaii Association for Justice, though, says the law protects negligent lifeguards and holds them to a lower standard than other first responders, who are required to do their duties with reasonable care.

They say the state should instead purchase insurance for the lifeguards so the counties don't bear the risk.

The opposition comes as state lawmakers are considering a proposal that would make the law permanent. Several say it has proven to save lives and that's what's most important.

"If we don't provide the service, we're still going to have people go in the water. and we're going to have a lot more deaths," said State Sen. Kalani English, who authored the original law.

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