EXCLUSIVE: Alameda fights water rescue lawsuit

February 7, 2013 6:43:17 PM PST
When a despondent man apparently tried to drown himself at a beach in Alameda, the local rescuers said they weren't properly certified for a water rescue. And now the city claims they weren't legally obligated to do anything that day. It's a story you'll see only on ABC7 News.

It's part of the city's defense against a lawsuit filed by the dead man's brother. It happened at Crown Beach in Alameda on Memorial Day in 2011.

The City of Alameda argues that even if its firefighters were certified to conduct an ocean rescue, it's not their duty to stop people from committing suicide. And that's why it wants this case thrown out.

When 53-year-old Raymond Zack wandered, neck high, into the frigid waters off of Alameda's Crown Beach, onlookers wondered why police and firefighters stood by as the man succumbed to hypothermia and drowned.

"California, by law, has created series of immunities and privileges for police, fire," said City of Alameda attorney Greg Fox.

In court Thursday, Fox said it was not their duty to prevent Raymond from committing suicide.

"The law specifically says the officers are immune for their actions, unless they go in and make the situation worse," Fox said.

But attorneys for Raymond's brother, Robert Zack, who is suing Alameda, say the fire department did make the situation worse.

"They cleared the beach, they stopped people from communicating with Zack, stopped people from trying to walk out to establish contact to reassure him and perhaps assist him in," said the brother's attorney, Robert Cartwright Jr. "Instead they did nothing and watched him slowly die."

There's also another reason why the fire department watched Raymond drown. Budget constraints kept them from being recertified to carry out an ocean rescue. They even refused to retrieve his body from the water, and let a civilian wade out to get him.

"I think there was a duty established and the citizens have an expectation," Robert said.

There's also a political twist. The city was refusing to pay firefighters for the extra time needed to recertify their water rescue credentials.

"This whole thing got held up for three years while nothing was done," Cartwright Jr. said. "Meanwhile the public was put at risk all this time with nobody available to do water rescue training while they fight over whether they get time and a half."

Now, whether or not Raymond Zack became a political pawn here is not being decided in this situation. Instead, the judge is deciding if those firefighters had the duty to rescue him, or the immunity to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. A decision is expected to come down as early as this Friday.


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