Danger lurking on Sunshine State beaches
According to the state's official statistics, Florida has 1,197 miles of coastline and 663 miles of beaches. Tourism is the biggest business in Florida, with an estimated 85.9 million visitors in 2011, according to state estimates, making Florida one of the top travel destinations in the world. The tourism industry has an impact of more than $80 billion annually on Florida's economy and employs about 1 million people across the state. People flock to relax on the beaches of Florida. Jimmy Buffett and Kenney Chesney have written many songs glorifying the spot of sand that relaxes us and the sound of the ocean that soothes. But there is a problem — a big problem. Florida also is the worldwide leader in another unfortunate statistic: injuries and deaths by automobile on beaches. It seems many states have learned from prior lessons, but not Florida. There are two issues: beach driving by the general public and beach driving by official vehicles.Beach driving supporters argue Daytona and the surrounding area were born and have thrived because of the history of the general public driving on beaches. In fact, NASCAR found much of its birth on those same beaches, they argue. NASCAR also was born out of the need for those who illegally transported alcohol (known as "bootleggers") to have faster cars than police, when sales of alcohol were illegal in this country. Those who made alcohol had to use special vehicles to transport it to withstand the weight and speeds, as well as rough terrain. Racing developed out of the desire to show who was the better bootlegger, essentially. Frankly, NASCAR now and NASCAR then are distinguishable. People were not texting while driving, the average attention span was longer and we are supposed to be much more safety conscious now. Beach driving by anyone is dangerous. Most troubling is the repeated incidents in which lifeguards, beach patrol, police and other government safety officers run over sunbathers. At least 12 women have been run over on Florida beaches. It is made more troubling because Florida has extreme government-protection laws at play, which make it immune to accountability. It has one of the most stringent systems of legal hurdles and limits in the United States, despite making more money off beach tourism than any other state (and probably any other country). Up until last year, whether death or serious injury resulted, even if medical bills totaled over $200,000, the limits of liability were $100,000. It has now been raised to $200,000. That's right — a lifeguard could run over a person, and all a county previously had to pay was $100,000, no matter if bills totaled more than that or the person died. I represent two women run over by beach patrols — one in 2011 and the other this year. I appeared with the 2011 victim, Erin Joynt, and her family on the Today Show. I also represent Rinda Mizelle of North Carolina. Each Florida municipality or county seems to be acting alone. They are neither learning from each other nor from other states. Miami changed its policies after a third incident in 2003. Here is a brief account of all of the lifeguard vs. tourist run-overs we could find. In November 1993, a Peruvian tourist, Sylvia Garcia, 28, was run over by beach patrol while sunbathing in Miami. She was lying on her stomach. The lieutenant drove a Dodge Ranger "up her torso and over part of her head." Garcia suffered broken ribs, a broken clavicle and external head injuries. In April 1999, a Miami lifeguard made a sharp right turn and ran over a pregnant woman with both left tires. Lupe Eyde-Tucker, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, and her unborn child survived, despite Eyde-Tucker suffering a crushed pelvis, broken ribs and head injuries. Sandrine Tunc, 26, and her sister, 27-year-old, Stephanie Tunc, were sunbathing on a crowded Miami beach on Feb. 22, 2003, when a Miami police SUV ran them over. The officer started off on hard-packed sand, more often used by police vehicles. The officer eventually turned southeast onto softer sand and headed toward a lifeguard tower, rolling over the two French tourists and pinning one of them under the SUV when he stopped. In 2003, Stephanie was quoted as saying, "For the memory of my sister, I want to see all the police trucks banned from beaches in Florida. Too many people have been injured. Too many people have died. And too many people have suffered. This must never happen again." After the accident, Miami adopted policies, including using bicycles or all-terrain vehicles for routine patrols, using flashing overhead lights when police cars must be on the beach, keeping cars, trucks and SUVs off the soft sand when hard sand is available, and limiting speeds to 15 mph. Miami has largely been problem-free from a beach patrol operation standpoint, learning from this death. On Sept. 3, 2003, a Volusia County Beach Patrol truck ran over Vennetta Mkzechyan, 50. She was not hit by the tires but was burned by the undercarriage. John Anderson of the beach patrol was cited for reckless driving. He did not see the woman when he parked on the beach, while pulling up to a concession stand. On July 31, 2005, Kristina Miles, 25, was also run over by lifeguards. "I couldn't scream, and I couldn't cry because I was in shock," Miles said. A Dodge Dakota driven by veteran beach patrol Officer Rob Horster rolled over a portion of her body as she lay face down on her blue, plastic chaise lounge. She sustained cuts and bruises on her arm and side. The officer, who had been with the patrol since 1974 and was promoted to supervisor in 1995, had left the traffic lanes on the sand and stopped his truck to speak to another officer, who was also in his own vehicle. On July 4, 2006, a Volusia County beach patrol officer drove a pickup truck diagonally across Danielle Taylor's body as she sunbathed with her eyes closed. The 20-year-old student was on vacation from Fort Stewart, Ga. She received extensive injuries to her pancreas and spleen and a collapsed lung. For the next two weeks, she was in the Halifax Hospital and then had multiple visits to her physician when she returned home. She settled her claim for statutory limits of $100,000. On June 8, 2010, Patrol Officer John Scott Dowling was making a right turn when he ran over sunbather Carole Dalton, 52, who was sitting in a beach chair on Daytona Beach. She suffered a broken shin bone, or tibia, which was trapped under the truck. She required surgery. In May 13, 2011, Kelly McNichols was a student at the University of Dayton visiting Volusia as a part of a "Dayton to Daytona" spring break campaign, when Officer Russell St. John made a U-turn with his beach vehicle and ran over her arm. She was treated and released and accepted a settlement for medical costs. On July 31, 2011, Erin Joynt, a tourist from Kansas, drove more than 20 hours to spend time on Daytona's famous beach. Erin was sunbathing when a truck performed an improper U-turn and ran over her head and torso. She suffered hearing loss, sight impairment, facial fractures, broken ribs and a host of other injuries. Her 8-year-old and 5-year-old were coming out of the water when it happened. The vehicles still patrol Volusia beaches, despite plans to remove them that have existed for some time, and more than 50 people have been struck or killed in beach-driving accidents by lifeguards and non-lifeguards alike. Volusia should be more than ashamed; officials should have made sure these incidents stopped at all cost. They have not. Volusia makes substantial revenue off beach driving — $1.3 million in 2008, $1.8 million in 2009 and $1.8 million in 2010. Volusia would have to build parking lots if it changed its policy — at a cost to taxpayers. Cost versus benefit. On April 10, just a couple of weeks ago, Rinda Mizelle of Charlotte, N.C., was sunbathing on the beach in Fort Lauderdale when she felt the Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue truck rolling across her body. She was burned and scraped, and still has undetermined orthopedic and neurological injuries.
John Phillips is a Jacksonville attorney and radio show host.