Sometimes you wish the defendant would lose when a fireman prevents a rescue by someone who probably could have saved the deceased’s life

At the same time, any claim for “negligent rescue” would put thousands of SAR volunteers at risk.

Decker, v. City of Imperial Beach, 209 Cal. App. 3d 349; 257 Cal. Rptr. 356; 1989 Cal. App. LEX-IS 301

State: California, Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, Division One

Plaintiff: Glenn A. Decker

Defendant: City of Imperial Beach

Plaintiff Claims: Failure to properly rescue and failure to allow rescue

Defendant Defenses:

Holding: For the Defendants

Year: 1989

The deceased and a friend went surfing off the city beach. There were no lifeguards on duty because it was not summer. Lifeguards were only at work during the summer season. The defendant city does not provide lifeguards for the beach except in the summer.

The defendant’s leash for his surfboard got caught on a line for a lobster trap and he eventually drowned.

While the deceased was still alive several people attempted to assist the deceased until the fire department showed up. On the scene the Fire Chief ordered no more rescues.

An Imperial Beach firefighter, Olin Golden, who was a water safety instructor and life guard, contacted Hewitt about the situation and borrowed Hewitt’s wet suit and surfboard.  Imperial Beach Fire Chief Ronald Johnston ordered Hewitt and Golden and all other would-be rescuers to remain on the beach and not to attempt a rescue.

Eventually, the deceased died without being rescued and his body floated to shore. His mother sued the city for the botched rescue or actually no rescue. The trial court granted the cities motion for summary judgment.

This appeal then occurred.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court first started looking at the requirements for summary judgment in California.

The aim of the summary judgment procedure is to discover whether the parties possess evidence requiring the fact-weighing procedures of a trial. “[The] trial court in ruling on a motion for summary judgment is merely to determine whether such issues of fact exist, and not to decide the merits of the issues themselves.” In reviewing the propriety of a summary judgment, the appellate court must resolve all doubts in favor of the party opposing the judgment.

A defendant is entitled to summary judgment if the record establishes as a matter of law that none of the plaintiff’s asserted causes of action can prevail.

The city first argued that it owed no duty because surfing was a hazardous recreational activity and there was a statute that protected it from liability issues of such activities.

Government Code 2 section 831.7 provides a public entity is not “liable to any person who participates in a hazardous recreational activity . . .  for any damage or injury to property or persons arising out of that hazardous recreational activity.” Surfing is specifically included as a “hazardous recreational activity.” (§ 831.7, subd. (b)(3).)

In reviewing the statute the court found the legislature had you broad language in creating the statute in order to provide the broadest protection for the municipalities.

Instead, the Legislature used expansive language to describe the scope of the immunity, stating it applied to “any damage or injury to property or persons arising out of that hazardous recreational activity.” (Italics added.) This broad language is reasonably susceptible to an interpretation that it was intended to preclude liability for negligently inflicted injuries while rescuing a person who has been participating in a hazardous recreational activity since it can be said the rescue effort “arises out of” the individual’s participation in the hazardous recreational activity.

The court looked at the issues in the case and found the statute was created to encourage rescue. If any rescue was subject to litigation afterwards, no rescues would occur.

The act did seem to have an exception for gross negligence.

An interpretation of the hazardous recreational activities immunity to immunize public entities and their employees for acts of emergency rescue services unless there is gross negligence furthers the strong public policy encouraging rescues and emergency assistance.

However, no gross negligence claim was pled, and none was found in this case.

The court then looked at the Fire Chief “precluding other assistance.”

The facts show Imperial Beach firefighter Olin Golden borrowed Hewitt’s wet suit and requested permission to attempt a surf rescue of Gary.  Decker states Golden “was a water safety instructor and a life guard trained in surf rescue.” While Decker presented evidence showing Golden was a water safety instructor and lifeguard, nothing in the record indicates Golden was experienced in surf rescue. Rather, the record indicates Golden had given swimming lessons at a high school pool and had guarded the pool; this was the information known to the fire chief at the time he told Golden to stay on the beach. Under these circumstances, it cannot be said the fire chief’s refusal to allow Golden to attempt a surf rescue constituted gross negligence.

Here the court found the duty of the fire chief in precluding the rescue was based on protecting the rescuer. As such the acts of preventing a possible rescue were not grossly negligent.

The next argument made by the plaintiff, was, the rescue technique used was antiquated and prevented a proper rescue.

Decker presented testimony by Charles Chase, an experienced lifeguard supervisor.  Chase testified about the rescue method used by the Sheriff’s dive team (sending out a diver tethered to a rope) as follows: “A life line type rescue is used in special circumstances, but it would never be used with a strong side current [as was the case here] and it would never be used if you could get there quicker in a better way, and it’s a specialized form of rescue. Years and years ago the life line rescue was quite common, and that was prior to the use or the availability of, say, fins and also the availability of good swimmers.  If you go back to the 20’s, they had a limited amount of people that could swim as well as a lot of people can swim now and fins weren’t available.”

The court found the technique was disfavored, but did not rise to the level of gross negligence in this case.

This testimony could support a finding that use of the lifeline rescue method is a disfavored surf rescue method and would not be used by an experienced, trained surf rescuer but it does not support a finding the sheriff’s dive team was grossly negligent for having used this method given their lack of training or experience in surf rescue.

Finding no gross negligence on the part of the fire chief or the fire department the appellate court upheld the trial court’s granting of the motion for summary judgment.

So Now What?

This is one of those cases that frustrated the heck out of me. Yet, overall, in hundreds of other situations, this is the good outcome. It will save a lot more other people because rescuing someone will not be a liability nightmare.

This is how the law is to be applied both as it applies to the individual parties who are in the case and future litigants, searches and victims of the city.

Sad, but true.

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2 Comments on “Sometimes you wish the defendant would lose when a fireman prevents a rescue by someone who probably could have saved the deceased’s life”

  1. Stephen says:

    “There were lifeguards on duty because it was not summer. Lifeguards were only at work during the summer season.”

    I’m confused…


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