HILO — While county lifeguards protect the public on local beaches, they have very little protection from lawsuits when someone is injured or drowns in the surf.
A 15-year-old state law giving roughly 350 county lifeguards the same limited liability protection provided to state lifeguards expired June 30 after Gov. David Ige vetoed a bill extending their protections.
Ige was concerned the bill went too far, putting the state on the hook even if the lifeguards were negligent in their duties.
The governor said at the time he was “confident” an agreement between the state and counties would be reached, adding that “we’ll be back next year.” So far, that’s not happened.
Lifeguard protection bills are indeed back in the mix as the state Legislature advances to a key Feb. 16 deadline to have bills in their final committee. The new bills address Ige’s concerns by adding the exception of “gross negligence or wanton act or omission” of the lifeguard.
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, the county and the lifeguard from liability.
But none of the 11 bills filed on the issue had been scheduled for even their first hearing by press time Thursday.
The Hawaii County Council got into the act Wednesday, unanimously passing a resolution supporting two of the measures, House Bill 2258 and Senate Bill 2679.
Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, who is HSAC president, sponsored the resolution.
“Right now, our lifeguards do not have that limited liability,” Kanuha told the council.
Kanuha said he would like to see fewer bills in the state Legislature with expiration dates.
“The state loves to put that sunset date in so we have to come crawling back to do what we do,” he said.
While some had worried the counties would restrict the number of county beaches with lifeguards because of the fear of exposure from frivolous lawsuits, some lawmakers are pushing for a different approach — having all the lifeguards be state, rather than county, employees.
House Bill 2097 would give the Department of Land and Natural Resources $1 million to staff state and county beaches statewide with lifeguards.
“With the issue of lifeguard liability hanging over our first responders, and no indication that a legislative solution is at hand, my fire department supports the hiring of lifeguards by DLNR for state and county beaches,” Mayor Harry Kim said in written testimony Monday to the House Water and Land Committee. “Since all ocean waters are under state jurisdiction, this would seem a reasonable, sensible and effective path forward.”
The committee on Wednesday unanimously approved the bill, with minor changes.
DLNR, however, wants lawmakers to strike county beaches from the bill. DLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case, in written testimony, pointed out it costs $2.9 million just for the lifeguard contracts with counties at four state beaches, which includes Hapuna Beach State Park on the Big Island.
“These contracts are currently subject to quarterly renewals due to funding concerns as a result of the 16 percent increase in the collective bargaining unit for statewide county lifeguards,” Case said.