On August 3, 2009, Narie Balkaran drowned at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island after being caught in a rip tide that pulled him into the ocean. Because Jones Beach State Park is a public park, Balkaran’s family sued the State of New York – stating that the State of New York should be held responsible for the death of Balkaran for two reasons – first, because it failed to warn the beachgoers of the rip tide and alternatively, because it failed to close down the beach during the rip tide. The Court dismissed these arguments, stating that the State of New York only had a duty to beachgoers of “general supervision” and that the State was not responsible for warning swimmers of threats “arising from the existence of natural, transitory conditions of the ocean floor” when the lifeguards did not actually know of the rip tide existence at the time of Balkaran’s death.
The Court agreed with Balkaran’s family that State of New York has some responsibility for beachgoers on a public beach. The Court said that the State must act “as a reasonable person” in maintaining its property and keeping it safe for the public. According to the Court, this includes both general maintenance of public beach and general supervision of the beach. The Court then found that the State of New York satisfied this obligation by having a sufficient number of lifeguards (who were both “experienced and competent”), and that the lifeguards reacted to the situation by following proper procedures.
The Court notably declined the Balkaran family’s argument that the State of New York had a responsibility to warn beachgoers of the rip tide that took Balkaran into the ocean. Because the lifeguards did not have knowledge of the rip tide when Balkaran was taken away from the shore and into the ocean, the Court declined to extend this “duty to warn” to the beachgoers. On the other hand, if the lifeguards had known that there was a rip tide at the beach that day then the Court would have been more likely to find the State of New York responsible for Balkaran’s death. But, because the lifeguards did not have actual knowledge of the rip tide, they are not responsible for warning beachgoers about threats arising from natural forces (such as rip tides). The Court concluded that, in this instance, Balkaran assumed the risk of undiscovered rip tides when he made the choice to go into the ocean. Therefore, the State of New York was not responsible for his death.
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