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State Will Shoulder Bigger Share of Beach Liability, Maintenance Costs

July 16, 1987|JILL STEWART | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County will save millions of dollars under a new agreement that assigns the state a greater share of legal liability and maintenance costs involving aging piers and dangerous natural conditions on local state-owned beaches.

Under a plan approved 3 to 0 by the Board of Supervisors, the state will pay $5 million over the next three years for maintenance of Redondo, Manhattan, Topanga, Las Tunas, Malibu, Corral, Dan Blocker Memorial and Point Dume state beaches. After that, the state will pay about $1 million a year for the life of the 25-year contract.

The state also will assume 100% liability for injuries to beachgoers caused by piers or by natural conditions such as hidden sand bars.

The liability agreement was a key goal of the county, which earlier this year paid a $3.2-million settlement to a Redondo Beach man who was paralyzed when a chunk of concrete fell on him from the deteriorating, state-owned Manhattan Beach pier. The county agreed to pay the settlement because it was leasing the pier from the state.

Old Agreement Lapsed

Ted Reed, director of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, said he is "really very, very happy to get out from under this problem."

In past years, the county leased and maintained the state-owned piers and other beach facilities, but in 1981 that agreement lapsed. Since then, the two agencies have been wrangling over who should shoulder the cost of maintenance and liability.

Reed said sizable damage claims have been awarded by the courts in a handful of recent cases where swimmers in other parts of Southern California were paralyzed after diving into shallow surf and hitting the sand.

In 1984, he said, a court awarded a $6-million judgment against the City of Newport Beach after a man dived into the surf and broke his neck.

"That's gotten us pretty worried about the astronomical costs of beach accidents," Reed said.

Effect of Publicity

"Five years ago, if somebody dove into the ocean and fractured their neck, it was just tough bananas--they didn't think they should sue anybody for it," he said. "But it's just like anything else, as it gets publicized or on TV--boom!"

Dean Smith, head of administrative services for the Department of Beaches and Harbors, said that in the past six years, 16 damage claims have been filed against the department by people injured in a variety of accidents at beaches.

Only a handful of those cases have reached the courts, but Smith said just a single case can expose the county to millions of dollars in liability.

County officials said a $10-million lawsuit is pending against the county by a man who broke his spine when he dived into a sand bar in Manhattan Beach in 1985.

Last year, the county authorized a study of such accidents, and found that the vast majority of victims were boys and young men who had run into the water and dived into shallow surf, where currents often form unseen sand bars.

Signs Posted

Recently, some cities and counties have begun posting signs warning the public of sand bars, riptides and other dangerous natural conditions. Other cities and counties have chosen not to post signs, fearing that it is tantamount to admitting liability.

Meanwhile, a bill is awaiting action by the state Assembly that would exempt cities and counties from lawsuits prompted by deaths or injuries in beach accidents. Two similar bills have been killed in the past three years, but the current bill has received substantial support.

In the contract signed by supervisors last week, Reed said the state also has agreed to pay 50% of liability costs arising from minor maintenance problems such as potholes in bike paths or flooded, slick areas in restrooms.

"The idea is that the county should be able to respond to such minor repairs within a day, and we should be able to avoid those kinds of accidents at the beaches," Reed said.

"If we don't fix a pothole in time, and somebody gets hurt, we'll split the damage costs with the state," he said.

Smith said the county has received a handful of claims involving accidents on bike paths. The most significant was in 1981, when the county paid a $300,000 settlement after a man riding his bike in the dark crashed on a public bike path and was left a quadriplegic.

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