Wrongful Termination? Lifeguard Fired for Saving a Drowning Man, Then Asked to Return Following Public Outcry

Wrongfull TerminationLast month the media gave widespread publicity to the strange case of lifeguard Tomas Lopez, who was fired for leaving his post to save a drowning man. After observing the swimmer in distress, Lopez ran from his assigned section of a south Florida beach; by the time Lopez arrived, other beach-goers had pulled the drowning man from the ocean. Lopez and a vacationing nurse then administered medical attention until an ambulance arrived. The victim survived and was taken to the hospital.

Afterward, Lopez was fired. He works for a private company, Jeff Ellis Management, which provides lifeguards along that particular section of the Florida coastline. Beaches in the area are carved into separate zones, and lifeguards work for either public entities or private companies that supervise specified areas along the beach. The Orlando-based company, Jeff Ellis and Associates, claimed that Lopez violated a company policy and could have endangered the safety of other beachgoers in his own section. The company has a rule that if someone is drowning outside a designated zone, the lifeguard must stay put and call 911. Read here for more on continued government outsourcing of public services.

When Lopez left his area to aid the drowning man, the swimmer was about 1,500 feet from the company’s contracted area. Another beachgoer had alerted Lopez of the drowning man, as the swimmer was presently out of the lifeguard’s line of sight. The particular area was rocky, hazardous, and had no public access.

Jeff Ellis, the owner of the company Lopez worked for, responded with the following justification for the firing: “He [Lopez] left the zone and did not see anyone in trouble, that’s not our policy. Our policy is to call the management and have them respond and also fire rescue,” Ellis said. He explained that this was primarily a liability issue.

“We have liability issues and can’t go out of the protected area. What he did was his own decision. He knew the company rules and did what he thought he needed to do,” said Susan Ellis, a Jeff Ellis Management supervisor.

But Ellis also clarified that the company acted hastily, and that the section Lopez was in charge of supervising was never left unattended while he went to help the swimmer. “Once I learned the swimmers were never unprotected, I believed the actions the staff took did not measure termination,” Jeff Ellis said. He contacted Lopez to offer his lifeguard position back.

Lopez, however, refused the company’s offer to return to his job. “I’m not going to put my job over helping someone again. I’m going to do what I felt what’s right, and I did,” Lopez said.  See Lopez’s response.

Another lifeguard was also fired by managers after remarking that he would have done the same thing to save someone from drowning. Following that incident, yet another quit in support of his friends, and at the latest count four others have given notice to the company.

The employment attorneys at Emery Reddy are committed advocates of workers in all professions – from lifeguards to mechanics to software engineers. If you are the victim of questionable or illegal employment practices—discrimination,wrongful termination,awage dispute, or some practice involving FMLA or ADA—we will protect your rights and help you receive the benefits you deserve.

Emery Reddy