Lifeguard Fired for Saving a Life: The Pall of Litigation vs. the Value of Life

Posted on July 6, 2012


In Florida, lifeguard Tomas Lopez was fired for saving a man’s life at Hallendale Beach.  And then six of his fellow lifeguards were fired for saying they would do the same.  The issue?  The drowning man was outside the lifeguard’s assigned zone.  The private contractor he worked for – Jeff Ellis and Associates – explained this in a statement saying  “We have liability issues and can’t go out of the protected area.”  By leaving his zone “unprotected,” Lopez’s decision could have put beachgoers in that zone in jeopardy and opened the company up to lawsuits, they said.  Never mind that in the same statement, company officials say that during the incident, other lifeguards watched over Lopez’s assigned area and “The beach remained protected at all times.”  Sorry, Jeff Ellis and Associates, there just isn’t any good way to spin this.

This story makes me want to just rip my hair out.  It’s just one more example of how paralyzed and, frankly, immoral we have become thanks to the ever-present threat of litigation or baseless accusations that will ruin our lives.  We don’t dare stop and investigate a child standing alone on the side of a road, lest we end up accused of having kidnapped them.  We don’t dare pull someone from a burning car, lest they sue us as the cause of their consequent paralysis (this became enough of an issue that many states now have Good Samaritan laws to protect rescuers from such lawsuits).  And I guess we don’t dare allow our lifeguards to set one pinky toe outside their designated zone, lest someone suddenly drown while they are saving someone else outside the zone.  Never mind that the second person would be in just as much trouble if the lifeguard were busy saving someone else inside his designated zone.

I guess we have partly done this to ourselves.  Haven’t we seen the most outlandish lawsuits awarding payouts from ordinary business owners, property owners, or manufacturers for the stupidity, carelessness and even criminal behavior of customers, and even trespassers and thieves?  There was the famous suit against McDonald’s for burns suffered from spilling one’s own coffee.   And check out that box of Pop-Tarts.  It actually warns you that the contents will be hot after you have heated them.  And then there are the suits over things that haven’t even happened to us.   I mean, dang, if you have ever so much as owned an asbestos oven mitt, you can sue somebody for a disease you don’t even have.   Yep, litigation has gotten ridiculous and it scarcely pays to go into any kind of business any more.  So I can understand where the concerns come from in this lifeguard case.  But I think it is an immoral company policy to ignore drowning people outside a magical line, and a bad decision to fire the morally correct lifeguard who saved a life.

On the other hand, this story warms my heart.  Seven young people, between the ages of 16 and 21 as far as I can tell from the press, place the moral imperative to preserve human life above mere employment.  They have their priorities straight.  They see the perversity of it:  they are hired to protect life, and to hell with the rules that dictate they do nothing and let a man drown even if he is only a few feet outside their assigned zone.  Some rules are just screaming to be broken, and this is one of them.

The company’s contract with the city of Hallendale expires at the end of this year.  I’d say the city is ripe to consider some new bids.