SACRAMENTO — The state Senate on Friday overwhelmingly approved legislation protecting coastal cities from some lawsuits arising from deaths or injuries in accidents on beaches.
The bill, by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), is aimed at overturning a 1982 state appellate court decision against the City of San Diego, a ruling many coastal city officials believe made governments unfairly liable for unforeseeable or unpreventable accidents.
The measure is similar to two other bills authored by Bergeson that were killed in a Senate committee in 1985 and 1986. This time, the Senate approved the measure on a bipartisan vote of 32 to 2 and sent it to the Assembly, where it is expected to face another tough committee challenge.
The 4th District Court of Appeal ruling that Bergeson seeks to overturn altered governments' longstanding immunity from responsibility for accidents caused by land left in its "natural condition." In that case, the court said San Diego, by providing lifeguard service, had altered the land's condition and, therefore, could be liable for a woman's drowning even if her death was caused primarily by a riptide.
Lost Natural Immunity
In a highly publicized Newport Beach case two years later, the courts again ruled that the city had lost its natural immunity by providing public services at the beach and awarded $6 million in damages to a man paralyzed after he dove in shallow water near the Balboa Pier.
Since then, city and county officials have said they would be better off legally if they provided no protection on the beaches, thus giving the courts no choice but to rule that the land was in its natural condition.
Bergeson's measure, which has been opposed by the California Trial Lawyers Assn., would again extend the natural condition immunity to cases where cities provided lifeguards or warning signs. But the bill also states explicitly that injured parties would still be able to sue if the government "willfully or maliciously or with conscious disregard" fails to warn people against a known dangerous condition.
"Beach cities are being penalized, penalized for providing life-saving services to the public," Bergeson said Friday. "The irony of (the court ruling) is that if we pull our lifeguards under present law there would be no liability for the resultant injuries. That is the policy question that needs to be addressed."
Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), a 70-year-old lawmaker who said he spent much of his boyhood on the beaches of Southern California, said Bergeson's bill would return to public agencies the flexibility they need to keep the beaches safe.
"Now they'll be able to have lifeguards, and they'll be able to put (warning) signs in and take precautions and allow all the beach boys and beach girls of California to enjoy the beaches," Davis said.
The only spoken opposition to the bill came from Sen. Milton Marks (D-San Francisco), who said the bill goes too far in excusing public agencies for their mistakes.
"This makes it very difficult to get any form of liability," Marks said. "It provides an immunity from liability which I think will redound to the detriment not only of the cities of the the state but also to the public citizens."
Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee engineered the defeat of Bergeson's 1985 and 1986 bills, paid an unusual compliment to Bergeson for her tenaciousness on the issue.
"I opposed the measure as vigorously as I could," Lockyer said. "I couldn't kill it, frankly. She beat me. I want to compliment her for being a heck of a scrapper."
Lockyer then said he would vote for the bill because the only remaining issue of contention between the coastal cities and the trial lawyers was "within a hair of being worked out." He said the bill would be part of a package of legislation aimed at resolving public liability issues.