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Huntington Beach wants to limit payment to family of 11-year-old killed in lifeguard program to $26,000

May 18, 2010 |  6:39 pm

The city of Huntington Beach has taken legal steps to stop the family of an 11-year-old girl who died in a junior lifeguarding exercise from suing the city for anything more than the value of the boat that killed her.

In July 2009, Alyssa Squirrell was part of a group of junior lifeguards conducting a routine training exercise known as a "speed drop” from the Sentinel II, a city-owned lifeguard boat.

The boat’s operator dropped off the swimmers before circling around to pick them up. Its propellers struck Squirrell, who bled to death from the wounds.

In March, Squirrell’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city alleging negligence on the part of city employees. In their suit filed in federal court last week, attorneys for Navigators Insurance, the city’s insurance company, cite maritime law which limits liability for the owners of some seagoing vessels.

The suit says the city, if found liable, should pay only damages limited to the value of the Sentinel II, or about $26,100.

“The accident is a tragedy but the responsibility for the insurance company is to defend the city,” said City Atty. Jennifer McGrath. “We’ve never had an incident like this before and we’ve been providing the experience for more than 20 years for several thousand children in the community. …This type of tragedy is why the city has insurance.”

The family’s attorney disagreed.

“This is a case that should have and could have been respectfully and amicably resolved between the Squirrell family and the city and its insurers, but the city declined,” Gary Chambers said in a statement.

“Participants in the city of Huntington Beach Junior Lifeguard Program should be aware that no matter how much harm might result in an accident caused by city negligence involving a lifeguard vessel, that the city…places a value on the lives of their children at $26,100, the value of a lifeguard boat.”

-- Paloma Esquivel