As an operator of a
flat-water beach in Michigan, I’m constantly stunned by the
arguments and discussion voiced by many of my peers about the ways
to avoid drowning litigation. We must understand that liability
occurs after a drowning, which is an event that is quite
preventable. With that in mind, here are five common fictions about
lifeguards and liability.
FICTION: There aren’t enough lifeguards.
FACT: Many believe there’s a shortage of lifeguards,
but personal experience has taught me the contrary. In fact,
recently the city of Rochester Hills Parks Department (Mich.)
interviewed and tested eight potential lifeguard candidates for
only two relatively unadvertised openings. Similar situations seem
to be occurring in nearby cities — an overabundance rather
than a shortage of guards.
The fact is, guards
will always be available as long as there are physical education
programs at schools — and private organizations such as the
American Red Cross and the YMCA to certify them. As long as there
are teenagers looking for summer jobs, we can and will have
lifeguards. The problem is not the number of lifeguards, but
rather, noncompetitive wages or supporting
Liability follows lifeguards.
FACT: Many facility supervisors worry that once their staffs
contain lifeguards, they will be liable for anything that happens
in the water. This is not necessarily true because a facility can
still be held responsible for what happens in unguarded swim
Take the recent
court case of Winkfield vs. Kamp Grounds of America (KOA) in Port
Huron, Mich. A $2.1 million judgment was brought against an
unguarded KOA pool operation after a drowning. This KOA was not
legally required to provide guards and had warning signs
facts surrounding the submersion fatality were no supervision, very
cloudy water and electrical grounding failure that may have
contributed to the high award, but not likely the death of the
child. Hiring guards does not absolve a facility of responsibility
in an incident, but instead serves as a safeguard to prevent the
incident from developing in the first place.
FICTION: Signage prevents incidents.
FACT: As seen in the case of the Winkfield death, the
warning signs provided little or no value in limiting the
settlement amount. Considering that this horrible accident could
easily have been prevented by a trained and equipped lifeguard, we
can only conclude that signs, in fact, do not rescue people. The
guard would have likely seen the child on the surface or would have
closed the pool until the water met the state code for water
don’t necessarily insulate facilities from liability,
including those that warn people that lifeguards aren’t on
duty. In the case of David Burke vs. KOA involving a 2003 drowning,
a 23-year-old man attempted to swim across a small pond. A
settlement for the plaintiff was awarded after the judge considered
statistics showing a very poor safety record and the lack of
required safety equipment. This settlement was reached despite the
fact that signs were in place stating that no lifeguards were on
FICTION: Lifeguards don’t save lives.
FACT: Property owners don’t believe that lifeguards
reduce the occurrence of drownings. Unguarded drowning fatalities
in Michigan occur 11 to 12 times more often than at guarded
The other overlooked
fact that can help drive home this point is that submersion rescues
(near-drownings) in which a person is successfully resuscitated,
occur at a much higher frequency at a guarded facility based on the
20-year Michigan drowning database.
fatality of Mohammad Sobiad Fida on July 4, 2002, in Ingham County,
Mich., occurred shortly after the county’s board of
commissioners removed lifeguard services from a local lake. Most
would agree that a trained and equipped lifeguard service would
have easily intervened and rescued the struggling swimmer. As a
direct result of this incident, Ingham County may incur future
costs due to litigation fees and settlement awards.
FICTION: Guard service is expensive.
FACT: Many property owners believe the costs of maintaining
a lifeguard service outweigh the benefits. Yet in a three-month
summer season, the actual cost of running a lifeguard service
ranges between $50,000 and $70,000. Instead of undertaking a summer
lifeguard service, the KOA chose to spend 42 times that amount in
reaching a settlement.
officials, however, decided that the chance of saving a human life
was worth more than the $30,000 budget they allotted for their
lifeguard fund. By the end of summer 2002, they had reinstated
their lifeguard service.