Hawaii lifeguards may lose legal protections under amended bill

Local News

Lifeguards in Hawaii don’t hesitate to save someone’s life.

For 15 years, they have had what’s called limited liability protection. That means they had immunity from being sued except in the case of gross negligence.

The law the granted the protection is set to expire in June, and there was hope that immunity would become permanent.

But State House lawmakers have changed the language of a bill (SB562) that would have extended the limited liability protection until 2021 and removed the immunity for lifeguards.

“Upon careful consideration, your Committee has amended this measure by deleting its contents and inserting provisions requiring the Attorney General to defend any civil action based on the negligence, wrongful act, or omission of a county lifeguard for services at a designated State beach park under an agreement between the State and a county.” – House Committee on Judiciary

The mayors from all four counties want to make the protection permanent. They said not having it will put lifeguards at risk, and taxpayers would end up paying if the immunity protection was no longer there.

All mayors say they do not plan on reducing lifeguard services if the bill passes in its amended form.

“I want to make it perfectly clear that none of us want to pull our lifeguards off the beach. We want to protect our lifeguards as much as possible,” Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said.

The House Committee on Judiciary removed the liability protection, and instead want to require the state attorney general to defend civil action against the counties.

The attorney general would only defend cases for state beaches including Yokohama Bay on Oahu, Makena Beach on Maui, Kee Beach on Kauai, and Hapuna Bay on Hawaii Island.

There are 406 county lifeguards in Hawaii, and only 30 of them are stationed at state beaches. The state does not employ lifeguards.

“If this bill passes six of them will be protected out of Yokohama Bay saving lives, but all the other lifeguards around this island, Sandy Beach, Pipeline and everywhere else in between, every time they step from the wash of the waves and into the water, they realize they are incurring potential liability for saving someone’s life,” Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell said.

The Hawaii Association for Justice does not support immunity for lifeguards. In written testimony, it stated “only lifeguards are allowed to perform at a substandard level by providing them with immunity against their negligent performance of lifeguard services.”

State Representative Scott Nishimoto said in a statement that the amendments created a fair bill that protects lifeguards and the public. He said, “No other first responders, such as firefighters, police officers, or EMT ambulance personnel have statutory immunity to perform their duties at a level below reasonable care.”

HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira said that lifeguards deserve to be protected by the law from any personal liability. HGEA is the union that represents lifeguards in Hawaii.

Both the Hawaii State Association of Counties and Hawaii Council of Mayors agree removing the immunity puts lifeguards and the public at risk.

They also said that lawyers would make a significant amount of revenue if the bill passes, because they could sue the county and state.

“This provides no benefit to the state. In fact, it increases their expenses because the attorney general will have to represent the counties. It does absolutely nothing but punish the counties. And the only people that benefit from this action that is about to pass is the trial attorneys,” Mel Rapozo, Kauai County Council Chair said.

Again, all mayors said they do not plan on cutting lifeguards services.

In fact, Oahu’s mayor says they actually want to add more lifeguards on the island, specifically on the westside.

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