$1 million burn injury settlement revives discussion of legal liability for Dockweiler fire pits

By Gary Walker

The public fire pits at Dockweiler State Beach are the last of their
kind in L.A. County
Photo via beaches.lacounty.gov

Before voting last week to pay out a nearly $1 million settlement to the family of a toddler burned by hot coals in a fire pit on Dockweiler Beach, Los Angeles County officials had sought to indemnify local government from these types of liability cases.

Jaelene Salinas suffered severe burns to her feet on July 15, 2011, after she climbed into a fire ring on the popular stretch of beach in Playa del Rey. The fire ring had been used earlier and the coals inside had been covered with sand but were still extremely hot, according to county documents.

The toddler’s family sued, and in 2015 the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors ordered taller replacement fire rings and signage with red letters that reads “Caution, Hot Coals” and “Allow Fires to Burn Out.” Last year they added signs reading “Do Not Step in Fire Pits” with an illustration of a foot above the fire ring.

County documents responding to the lawsuit state numerous times that the child was “unsupervised” when she stepped into the fire ring. Still, a report by Deputy County Counsel Michael Gordon urged the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to approve a $985,000 settlement “due to the risks and uncertainties of litigation.”

Last year, county representatives backed proposed legislation sponsored by state Sen. Ben Allen (D- Santa Monica) that would have limited their liability for accidents on county beaches, similar to liability limitations that cover skate parks and dog parks. Senate Bill 720 specifically called out beach fire pits.

“The bill would immunize a public entity and its employees for any damage or injury to a person or property as a result of a fire or the remnants of a fire that arises from the use of a fire pit, fire ring, fire circle or barbecue grill located in an area designated for that use at a park, beach or recreational area, owned or controlled by the entity,” states a provision of the bill, which Allen later withdrew.

“The county asked our office to introduce SB 720 because the open-ended future liability would potentially cause them to remove the beach fire pits altogether,” explained a spokeswoman for Allen. “When we later learned that the bill could impact pending litigation, we opted not to pursue its passage.”

Jayme Wilson, economic development deputy for Supervisor Janice Hahn and her liaison with Beaches and Harbors, said that Dockweiler’s fire rings are the only ones that remain in the county’s 25 miles of beach managed by that department. He acknowledged that the county sought to immunize itself from civil liability through SB 720, but added that county officials do not want to get rid of the fire rings.

Holding bonfires, he said, “is a long family tradition for many people, and we want to maintain that tradition in the safest way possible. … But we also have to educate them so that people won’t get hurt.”

In addition to the signage, Harris said there have been additional inspections of the new rings that have been built taller to prevent children from stepping into them. Last month Beaches and Harbors also began an investigation of the fire rings in consultation with the county’s Risk Management Loss Prevention and Control Unit and an insurance specialist with expertise in fire-related injuries.