Local Government authorities and surf life savers are still trying to assess the full impact of a recent High Court decision that pertained to a severe injury to a swimmer at a patrol-led beach in Sydney.
The decision has the potential to add to the public liability costs facing surf life saving clubs, which have already risen nearly 30 fold since 1997.
However, two pieces of legislation, one already in place, could reduce some of the pressure on both local governments and lifesavers.
On February 8 the High Court overturned an appeal the Waverley Municipal Council had made against a Supreme Court of New South Wales judgement that ordered it to pay Guy Swain $3.75 million for injuries he sustained when he hit his head on a sandbar off Bondi beach while diving through a wave.
The Supreme Court trial had been before a jury.
Those injuries left Mr Swain a quadriplegic.
The beach was being patrolled by three lifeguards employed by the Waverley council.
Surf Life Saving Western Australia CEO David Armstrong said the organisation’s lawyers were still trying to assess the full impact of the decision.
“We’re hoping the impact of the decision will be restricted to the legal matter over appeal courts overturning jury decisions,” he said.
“But it could also mean that surf life savers will have to collect and record evidence after any incidents.”
Mr Armstrong said there could be a cost impact on surf life saving clubs anyway because they were all part of the same national public liability scheme.
In 1997 Surf Life Saving WA’s public liability insurance bill was $5,500. This year the organisation had to pay $150,000.
Surf life savers could soon be protected by an Emergency Management Act, similar to the way fire fighters, police officers and SES volunteers are covered.
Mr Armstrong said the act, when passed, would mean that a case of gross negligence rather than negligence would have to be proved against surf life savers.
The Emergency Management Act was proposed by a committee set up by Premier Geoff Gallop to find ways to help surf life saving clubs handle their spiralling public liability costs.
WA Local Government Association director of services Peter Hoare said a new civil liabilities act put in place in the state also lifted the bar for the proof of negligence claims against local governments.
“There is a much higher standard of care on the person entering the water,” he said.
“If that hadn’t come into effect this case could have potentially opened up councils to more such actions.”
However, Mr Hoare said WALGA’s legal experts were also looking into the full impact of the decision.
Unlike Bondi, where the council employed its lifeguards, most of WA’s beachside council’s hire their local surf life saving club to provide patrols during the week.
On the weekends those patrols are provided by volunteers from those clubs.