SACRAMENTO — The signing by Gov. George Deukmejian of legislation that will protect coastal communities from lawsuits stemming from beach accidents drew immediate praise Monday from a Newport Beach city official.
The bill by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), included along with eight other measures in a liability reform package, was signed late Sunday by the governor.
Bergeson, who had tried for three years to have the bill approved, reached a compromise with the California Trial Lawyers Assn. in the final days of this year's legislative session to allow passage.
"This is very exciting. It's something like having a baby," said Newport Beach City Atty. Robert H. Burnham. "We can provide public services at the beach without fear of liability."
Court Decision Reversed
Bergeson's bill overturns a 1982 state appellate court decision that made it easier for accident victims or their heirs to pursue lawsuits against cities or agencies that control public beaches.
The 1982 ruling, known as Gonzales vs. City of San Diego, stemmed from natural underwater conditions for which the cities were not to blame.
Local officials complained that such court cases meant government officials would be better off not improving beaches, leaving judges and juries to conclude that the coast had been left in its natural state.
"This bill says that public beaches are in a natural condition, notwithstanding the presence or absence of public services like signs or lifeguards," Burnham said. "Things that we do to make things safer will not count against us (in a lawsuit)."
Basing its decision on the 1982 appellate decision, a jury two years ago ordered the City of Newport Beach to pay $6 million to a young man involved in a swimming accident. The victim was wading in thigh-deep water when he dove into the ocean and hit a sand bar that left him partially paralyzed.
The lawsuit contended that the victim should have been warned about the sand bar and the natural condition of the beach. That case is being appealed.
"Under the new legislation, the city would have won that case," Burnham said.
Bergeson said Monday that the decision by the trial lawyers to compromise on the legislation and include it in the tort reform package had prevented the bill's failure for the third straight year.
The senator also said the legislation has the potential to save coastal municipalities millions of dollars.
"I think the potential of cases throughout the state could have cost millions and millions of taxpayers' money," she said.
Bergeson said local municipalities will also save defense costs by making it more difficult for individuals to sue them. She said that, win or lose, a city usually spends about $250,000 in legal costs for each lawsuit lodged against it.
"It's a boon to the taxpayer. And the bill is fair, and it's equitable," she said.