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County leaders call on lawmakers to extend legal protections for lifeguards

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  • Law that protects Hawaii lifeguards from liability proves controversial

    Law that protects Hawaii lifeguards from liability proves controversial

    Saturday, February 18 2017 2:12 AM EST2017-02-18 07:12:51 GMT
    (Image: Hawaii News Now)(Image: Hawaii News Now)

    Kauai 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 attor...

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    Kauai 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 attor...

    More >>
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Leaders of all four Hawaii counties have called out state lawmakers for proposing to do away with legal liability protections for lifeguards at county beaches.

Act 170, which provides immunity to county lifeguards, is set to expire on June 30. The law has been extended several times since its inception in 2002 and allows counties to post their lifeguards at state beaches.

But recently, the House voted to allow the law to sunset this summer. 

Legislators argue the move is necessary to give victims' families the option to sue if a lifeguard is negligent.

The latest House proposal eliminates immunity for county lifeguards and instead requires the state attorney general to defend them from lawsuits, but only if they're stationed at state beaches.

County leaders say only about 30 of the more than 400 county lifeguards are at state beaches, so that means about 90 percent of lifeguards would suddenly be vulnerable to lawsuits.

"All the other lifeguards around this island -- Sandy Beach, Pipeline and everywhere in between -- every time they step from the wash of the waves, onto the beach and into the water, they realize they're incurring potential liability for saving someone's life," said Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. 

If this proposal became law, Hawaii's mayors say they wouldn't pull their lifeguards off the state beaches -- but they would expect more costs to pass on to taxpayers. 

"Every lawsuit we get into means that taxpayer dollars will have to be spent to be able to defend that lawsuit," said Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa. 

Personal injury attorneys, who have been pushing to eliminate Act 170, argue that 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.

The House Judiciary chairman agrees.

"If your loved one is hurt or dies due to negligence, would you not want the right to seek resolution? Under the current law, you have no recourse," state Rep. Scott Nishimoto, said in a statement. 

But Kauai County Council Chair Mel Rapozo said the only people who will benefit from the law being allowed to sunset are lawyers.

"Personal injury attorneys ... stand to gain a significant amount of revenue because they will now have the ability to sue the counties and the state," Rapozo said.

While county leaders want Act 170 to become permanent, they say they would be fine with the Senate's proposal, which extends liability protection for lifeguards for four more years. They're hoping it's all worked out when the two houses come together in conference committee. 

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