Cities Open Drive to Regain Immunity From Beach Injury Suits

February 16, 1986|KENNETH F. BUNTING | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Southern California beach communities are launching a new legislative offensive to overturn a 1982 appellate court ruling that prompted scores of multimillion-dollar lawsuits over beach injuries.

Still reeling from last year's defeat, some of the cities are pooling their resources to hire a lobbyist to battle the California Trial Lawyers Assn. on the issue.

State Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), who represents several coastal regions of Orange and San Diego counties, has introduced a bill similar to one killed amid heavy lobbying by the trial lawyers last May.

With the lawyers and their lobbyists occupied fighting a June ballot measure to reform California's "deep pockets" rule--which allows recovery of damages from the defendant with the most money in a lawsuit, even though the defendant may not have been entirely at fault--officials in coastal cities say this year may provide their best chance ever to restore the legal immunities they enjoyed before the state Supreme Court let stand an appellate ruling in a lawsuit against the City of San Diego stemming from a 1978 drowning at Black's Beach.

"We would like to think their ammunition is going to be leveled elsewhere," Bergeson said, adding that it is doubtful that trial lawyers will support the new bill. Bergeson became interested in the issue after Newport Beach lost a $6-million lawsuit in 1984 filed by a Claremont teen-ager who was paralyzed after he dived into shallow water and struck a sand bar.

Natural Conditions

That case relied on the appellate ruling in an earlier case filed by the children of Theresa Gonzales, who drowned off Black's Beach in La Jolla. The justices essentially said that public entities' longstanding immunity from responsibility for "natural conditions" does not apply in areas where improvements have been made and such municipal services as police and lifeguards are provided.

Although Gonzales' children, who sued over their mother's death, settled with the city for $25,000, the case gave rise to other suits. Gonzales' children contended that San Diego officials had been aware for years of the unpredictable riptide conditions at Black's Beach but had never posted warnings.

The San Diego ruling initially received little attention. But the Newport Beach ruling did.

Fearful that they, too, would be hit with large judgments, some coastal cities began posting warning signs in several languages about all kinds of beach hazards--from riptides to clearly visible pier pilings.

However, others, including Laguna Beach, Long Beach and San Diego, resisted posting warning signs, fearing that to do so would make them appear to admit liability in already pending suits.

Won't Join Coalition

While officials in Long Beach support the bill, they have refused to join the coalition of other beach communities because the city already has a lobbyist, Michael Arnold of Sacramento, on its payroll. Robert Shannon, assistant city attorney in Long Beach, said Arnold would join in the fight for the bill.

Shannon said Long Beach, unlike some coastal areas, has not been plagued with beach-related legal problems, primarily because the city's oceanfront is protected by a mile-long rock breakwater that substantially reduces the surf and currents.

Nonetheless, city officials are eager to see Bergeson's bill approved, Shannon said. "Those kinds of big lawsuits don't come along very often, but when they do, they're big," he said. "It only takes one."

Bergeson said the Gonzales ruling punishes cities for "providing lifesaving services." Because of skyrocketing insurance rates, she said, some cities might stop providing lifeguards as a way to reduce their potential liability.

Laguna Beach City Manager Kenneth Frank said the scope of Bergeson's bill was narrowed to overcome objections raised by lawyers and some of the state senators who refused to support last year's bill.

'Narrowed the Scope'

Although last year's bill stated that unspecified improvements and services do not eliminate the protection of statutory immunity, this year's bill specifically lists "lifeguards, park rangers or other persons who render services to the public."

"We have narrowed the scope of the bill as much as we could. . . ," Frank said. "I don't see how anyone can oppose it."

Still, Frank said, several beach cities are going in together to hire a lobbyist who will make the fight for the measure a top priority. He estimated that the coalition might spend as much as $25,000 on the effort.

Bergeson said that since the previous bill was killed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, she has met with officials from coastal cities she represents and had contacts with others statewide.

Trial Lawyers lobbyist Terrence Terauchi said that organization has not yet taken a position on Bergeson's new bill, but he indicated that he "will certainly oppose any effort to overturn the Gonzales ruling."

Terauchi said the cities want to shirk their duty to warn the public about such known hazards as riptides, shifting sand bars and hidden rocks. Terauchi said he knows of no instance in which a city has been forced to pay a large judgment after providing warnings about hazards.

The fact that hundreds of similar injuries had occurred over the years was one of the most damning pieces of evidence in the Newport Beach case. The city, which is appealing the verdict, has since posted warning signs about the shifting sand bars.

Times Staff Writer Eric Bailey contributed to this story.

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