In The Wake of Recent Drownings at New York Area Beaches Noted Personal Injury Lawyer Issues Warning to Owners, Operators and Bathers

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Sadly, the death of 10-year old Akira Johnson, who was swept out to sea early this month while paddling in the water at Coney Island -- one day after four other bathers went missing in riptides at weather ravaged local beaches -- will likely not sound enough of an alarm to convince municipal authorities to redouble efforts to protect bathers' lives.

Sadly, the death of 10-year old Akira Johnson, who was swept out to sea early this month while paddling in the water at Coney Island - one day after four other bathers went missing in riptides at weather ravaged local beaches -- will likely not sound enough of an alarm to convince municipal authorities to redouble efforts to protect bathers' lives, warned Richard Gurfein, a noted New York personal injury lawyer and former president of The New York State Trial Lawyers Association. Mr. Gurfein has represented and won numerous liability claims on behalf of clients against the City of New York in his more than three decades in private practice.

Gurfein noted that his safety warning extends to recreational bathers as well, who despite the inherent risks and unpredictable nature of ocean currents, will continue flocking to city beaches seeking relief from the heat and humidity in the few peak vacation weeks that remain of summer of 2008.

"The city and other beach owners," Gurfein said, "have a responsibility to operate their bathing areas in a reasonable manner. If lifeguards are aware of a situation, be it an unforeseen current making swimming unusually dangerous, or a hidden problem such as a sudden drop-off under water because of dredging activities, they have a responsibility to warn bathers by every reasonable means at their disposal."

But keeping New York area beaches safe for swimmers is not only the responsibility of the public authorities.

"It's a two-way street," Gurfein stressed, "and swimmers have responsibilities too. I have seen situations in my 30-plus years in personal injury practice where bathers, or their families, have sued municipalities for injuries, or drownings at a city beach only to discover that the injured parties ignored warnings and acted irresponsibly."

Gurfein cited a recent appellate case against Suffolk County where the courts dismissed the lawsuit because the swimmers ignored the fact that the beach was closed and the lifeguards had gone home (Graham v. County of Suffolk, 34 A.D. 3d 527, decided November 14, 2006). "They swam even though they were told swimming was prohibited after the beach closed," Gurfein said.

"People have a right to expect that local municipalities will anticipate the likelihood of a strong undertow or current, or any other unsafe condition at a public beach, and limit or prohibit bathing in that area until conditions improve," Gurfein added. All five incidents on New York's South Shore, in Long Beach and on Coney Island, were tied to strong rip currents that were due to a powerful storm system that brought 8-foot waves to the area earlier in the week.

"How many drownings is it going to take," Gurfein lamented, "before the city will apply appropriate standards of safety in places where large crowds of inexperienced bathers gather to play and cool off?"

"On the other hand," he added, "bathers should always think safety first. The law says that people are expected to act reasonably. I would much rather see people disappointed but safe and alive, then see someone take a foolish risk and then try to bring a lawsuit because they got injured or worse."

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Richard Gurfein

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