Privatization of Public Safety May Sink or Swim When A Lifeguard Is Fired For Rescuing A Person

Many employees are afraid for their positions if a wrongful death occurs. Tomas Lopez was understandably upset when he was terminated from his lifeguard position for saving a life. It turns out that Hallandale Beach, where Lopez had been working, has certain “safety zones” that the lifeguards are required to watch. Maksim Samartsev, the man Lopez helped save, was outside the established safety zone when he was drowning with his lungs full of water. Lopez’s supervisors reprimanded Lopez for his failure to follow the rules and fired him.

Jeff Ellis Management, the company Hallandale Beach contracts lifeguard safety to, initially defended the termination. The manager argued that all lifeguards were responsible for their assigned zones and that leaving those zones before a shift was over opened the company to legal liability for the patrons who were inside the lifeguard’s safety zone. The company was not responsible for Samarsev’s safety, as he was outside the areas covered, but Jeff Ellis Management was responsible for the area Lopez had left. If someone in the safety zone had been endangered while Lopez was out, the company would have been liable. It really doesn’t matter what Lopez was doing while he was away, he left his post and that was grounds for termination.

Although Jeff Ellis Management’s defense of Lopez’s termination is flawed, the odds of a life threatening in both covered and uncovered areas are very low; the justification is still legally valid. The area Samartsev had been in was clearly marked by a sign which stated that patrons in the unprotected area swam at their own risk. Moreover, the contract the company had with Hallandale Beach made the company responsible for the safety zones and the safety zones only. The management company had no fear of liability from Samartsev’s death, but plenty of liability existed when Lopez left his duties. The issue, however, has already resolved itself. The CEO has offered Lopez his old job back and noted that the area Lopez left had two other lifeguards present at the time Lopez left. Although Lopez has declined to return to his old job, the entire incident has raised concerns about the wisdom of privatization of public safety.

The recessions of the last decade has pushed the trend towards privatization of what are normally government responsibilities. Hiring private companies to fight fires or watch the beach is usually much cheaper than having the city or state do it all on its own. With governments so hard pressed for money, every penny saved is a penny useable elsewhere in the future.

The downside of having private business run public safety though is that businesses have priorities other then public safety. Businesses have to profit or, at the very least, not lose money. This rule has lead to unfortunate incidents, such as firefighters letting homes burn down because the residents hadn’t paid their fire insurance yet or lifeguards fired for not following company policies designed to limit liability.

Although these decisions are legally right, these are devastating public relations disasters. In the end, it may cost the companies more than any lawsuit possibly could. Hallandale Beach is considering not renewing Jeff Ellis Management’s contract and the company has enough negative online coverage to render it extremely difficult to find a new one.

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