SACRAMENTO — California coastal cities' protection from lawsuits over injuries on public beaches would be restored under a wide-ranging compromise on proposed legislation that was disclosed Tuesday.
The compromise, between the California Trial Lawyers Assn. and officials of local government, would overturn the effects of a 1982 state appellate court decision in a San Diego case and another ruling two years later in a Newport Beach case.
Those rulings limited governmental immunity from liability for injuries on property left in its natural condition, making it easier for accident victims or their heirs to pursue lawsuits against agencies that control the state's public beaches.
Cities that provide lifeguard services and warning signs have altered the land's natural condition and therefore cannot claim their traditional immunity from lawsuits, the courts ruled.
After $6 million in damages were awarded in the Newport Beach case, local officials complained that they would be in a better legal position if they provided no protection on the beaches because courts then would have to rule that the land was in its natural condition.
Tuesday, as part of a compromise package on several public liability issues, the trial lawyers association agreed not to fight legislation that would restore the local governments' immunity.
The language proposed states simply that "public beaches shall be deemed to be in a natural condition and unimproved, notwithstanding the provision or absence of public safety services such as lifeguards, police or sheriff patrols, medical services, fire protection services, beach cleanup services or signs."
"We're really pleased that this is part of the overall package," said Laguna Beach City Manager Kenneth C. Frank, spokesman for a group of coastal cities and counties that has pushed to restore the legal immunity to its former level. "I wasn't sure we'd ever get to this point."
Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) has been trying for the last three years to get legislation restoring immunity. The trial lawyers, who represent plaintiffs and thus have opposed efforts to limit court judgments, helped kill Bergeson's bill in 1985 and 1986.
But this year Bergeson was able to move her legislation through the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate. The measure is scheduled to be heard in an Assembly committee after the Legislature returns from its summer recess next week.
Backers of Bergeson's bill said the compromise disclosed Tuesday is even better for cities and counties than what Bergeson was forced to accept in order to win Senate passage of her bill.
Bergeson's bill as approved by the Senate stated explicitly that injured parties still would be able to sue if the government "willfully or maliciously or with conscious disregard" failed to warn people against a known dangerous condition.
If enacted, the language agreed upon Tuesday will make it easier for governments to persuade judges to dismiss cases before they are even heard on the grounds that the law holds governments immune from liability, experts agree. The public would still be liable for harm done by government employees who act negligently.
Bergeson, who has said she will amend her bill to include the new language, said she intends to continue to move her measure separately so it will be available should agreement over the broader package unravel. But with the trial lawyers' support, the package is expected to have little trouble in the Legislature.
"We're delighted," Bergeson said of the deal. "This is the language we want, and we're going to push to see that it is enacted."