Bather's $16m injury payout a dark cloud over beach life

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2002, 12:00am

The nation's famed beach lifestyle is under threat in the wake of a massive compensation payout to a man left a quadriplegic after diving into shallow waters at Sydney's Bondi Beach.

Guy Swain, 28, was awarded A$3.75 million (HK$16 million) for the injuries he sustained in 1997 after a Supreme Court jury ruled on Monday that Sydney's Waverley Council, which manages Bondi Beach, had been negligent.

Mr Swain had been swimming in an area designated safe for bathers. The council is considering an appeal.

Mr Swain had sued the council for failing to warn of a sandbank beneath the water, despite the fact that he dived in without checking the depth. He denied that he had been under any residual influence from an Ecstasy tablet he took the night before or a bottle of beer he had shared with a friend about an hour before plunging into the surf.

The payment was last night criticised as 'insane', with the prospect of Sydney's famous and much-used beaches being closed prompting anger and surprise.

The New South Wales state opposition warned that beaches would become 'no-go zones' unless Australia's insurance liability laws were reformed. The opposition spokesman on insurance regulation, Peter Debnam, said the ruling was 'another example of the insanity of public liability'. Waverley Council spokesman George Newhouse said it meant that Australian beaches were now 'uninsurable'.

'It is quite possible that we will have to close the beach or remove lifeguard services from the beach,' he said. 'That is the ultimate result of these sorts of claims. Do we have to put up a sign saying 'life is dangerous, be careful?'

'Five million people visit Bondi Beach each year and the burden of any injury is going to fall on our ratepayers, and I don't think that's fair.'

The Bondi case also has implications for beaches across the country. Local authorities around Australia said they would seek urgent legal advice about their liability for accidents, which they argue are almost impossible to prevent, and many are considering closing beaches altogether.

Councils in Queensland state said they were considering abandoning lifeguard patrols in light of the ruling. Gary Baildon, mayor of the Gold Coast, a Queensland resort area popular with Asian tourists, said he was stunned by Monday's decision.

'You have to ask the question, should we be in the business of trying to protect people from themselves? This has got far-reaching implications for lifesaving on the Gold Coast,' he said.

Australian beaches are patrolled by council-paid professional lifeguards as well as a vast network of volunteer surf lifesavers. With their distinctive red and yellow swimming caps and bronzed bodies, they are collectively regarded as a national icon.

Greg Nance, the head of the national volunteer body Surf Lifesaving Australia, said the federal Government should set up a national scheme to deal with soaring compensation payouts.

'How can we possibly train our people to anticipate every known risk in the surf? It beggars belief,' he said.