Jason M. Burdick was lifeguard when man died at Ocean Beach
New London - For attorney Jason M. Burdick, the July 4 drowning of a 6-year-old at the municipally owned Greens Harbor Beach is personal.
Burdick, who represents the estate of Anthony Bernoudy, which is considering suing the city over the boy's death, was one of two lifeguards on duty at the pool at Ocean Beach Park in 1999 when a 23-year-old man drowned. Burdick, the other lifeguard, the city and Boston Concessions Group, which managed the city-owned park, were sued by the man's family.
"It was a tragedy and I live with it every day. But out of tragedy, good things can come about," said Burdick, of the New London law firm of Messier, Massad and Burdick.
The 1999 lawsuit was settled with a confidentiality clause, Burdick said Wednesday, but changes were made at Ocean Beach to improve training for lifeguards and keep swimmers safe.
"This event shaped my life both personally and professionally," Burdick said. He continued to work as a lifeguard and later trained other lifeguards and taught swimming lessons.
By representing Bernoudy's family, he said, he hopes he can make changes that can prevent future deaths.
On Tuesday, Burdick filed an intent to sue the city, the lifeguards on duty July 4, and the supervisors and trainers who are responsible for safety at Greens Harbor Beach. Under state law, an intent to sue must be filed with a municipality within six months of a loss. A plaintiff has up to two years to file a lawsuit.
"Anthony was 6 and died while lifeguards were on duty, or should have been on duty, at a public beach," he said. "When there is adequate staff and supervision, tragedies like this don't happen."
Ocean Beach manager Dave Sugrue said Wednesday he cannot discuss specifics of the case, but around 2000, the beach hired Jeff Ellis & Associates to manage the lifeguards. The nationally-recognized organization trains and licences Ocean Beach lifeguards and monitors them, Sugrue said.
"They (the lifeguards) have to go through training every week. ... Their licenses can be pulled anytime," he said. Supervisors also audit the lifeguards four times a season.
Last summer, some lifeguards were on duty until about 9 p.m.
"A lot of times, late crew comes on," he said. "When it's sunny, it's sunny, people want to come on down after work and swim."
He said the agency, while "providing the best service for us,'' is not necessarily the right fit for all beaches.
Burdick, who grew up in New London, was an 18-year-old lifeguard 14 years ago when Jean Patrick Chrispin of Brooklyn, N.Y., drowned in the deep end of the Olympic-size pool at Ocean Beach. According to the lawsuit, Chrispin "indicated he was having difficulty keeping his head above water" and Burdick and the other lifeguard "failed to monitor activity in the pool and ignored repeated signals for help."
The lawsuit alleged that Ocean Beach and the city were negligent in that they failed to adequately supervise, monitor and train lifeguards, failed to put experienced lifeguards on duty and failed to allow for breaks for employees.
"I know all too well the gravity of the situation," Burdick said. "Municipalities give high school and college students enormous responsibility.
"One of the problems is, you forget the seriousness of the responsibility," he said. "And we can become complacent. We think nothing will happen, until something happens."
Bernoudy, who was at Greens Harbor Beach with his family July 4, was last seen around 5:30 p.m. near the water. After an intensive search, he was found by a diver in the water at about 11:10 p.m. a short distance off shore. He was taken to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
On July 4, there were two lifeguards on duty at the beach. The Parks & Recreation director said at the time that the park hours were 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. July 4 was a Thursday this year.
Burdick said that on July 4, 2012, there were four lifeguards on duty until 6 p.m. at Greens Harbor Beach. This past Labor Day, there were five lifeguards on duty until 6 p.m., he said.
"We're still investigating ... but what our investigation to date leads me to believe is that the city was responsible,'' Burdick said. He asked the public to withhold judgment until all the facts are out.
No decision has been made on whether to file a lawsuit, he said.
"But what the public should know is this is very serious to our family and to our office," he said.