Legropes and the law
In a recent issue of the Byron Bay Echo, a local legal firm, Somersby Laundry Lomax, took out a full page ad targeting surfers. It asked the question: “Have you been injured by a surfer whose board was not restrained by a legrope?”
Then it answered the question in kind: “If so, and you know the details of the surfer at fault, call Somerville Laundry Lomax.”
At first glance, the ad appears quite straightforward: a local business promoting its services to the public. Though considering it’s the legal profession the online response to the ad has included the usual lawyerly slurs about ambulance chasing etc.
There is, however, an ulterior motive to the advertisement; a covert purpose to its appearance. If you read between the lines you may suspect what that is, but if you want to end the guessing game then you can dial the number in the advertisement and go straight through to the switchboard. Which is what I did.
Ben Crawford is a solicitor at Somerville Laundry Lomax, he’s a long time surfer on the northern NSW coast, and he helped devise the strategy of compensating surf accident victims. It was also his idea to run that ad in the Echo.
“You’ll notice, “ says Ben, “that the ad specifies surfers not wearing legropes.” Which it does. It’s not addressing all surf accidents but only those of a particular nature: the surfer hit by a board ridden without a legrope.
I mention to Ben that in 2013 I wrote an article about legropes and the law, and in the process I interviewed a solicitor who told me the NSW Civil Liability Act created “significant hurdles” for injured surfers to recover damages.
"In my view," said the solicitor, "the courts would likely find that surfing is a dangerous recreational activity within the meaning of the Civil Liability Act. That would apply regardless of whether the board rider was wearing a legrope or not."
When I put that to Ben, he agrees that most surfers believe nothing can be done. That the law stops at the tide line. “We believe it doesn’t,” says Ben.
Their confidence rests on the fact that the widely published ‘Surfer’s Code’, turned into a plaque and mounted at most city beaches around Australia, includes the line ‘Don’t let go of your board’.
The Surfer's Code
“That’s an accepted norm in the surf,” says Ben. “It’s the same as don’t drop in.” When the Code was drafted in 2000 by Neil Lazarow the hipster-led fashion of surfing without a legrope wasn’t yet a trend. At the turn of the century almost everyone surfed with legropes, hence no direct mention of it in the Code, yet Ben and his SLL colleagues believe that losing your board because you don’t have a legrope simply falls under the point about not letting go of your board.
Point being, not wearing a legrope is a breach of the Surfers Code of Conduct. But that’s just one matter...
Ben then puts his legal training to work, building the argument, one point after the other, sometimes moving laterally to reinforce the base.
“The Civil Liability Act assumes that surfing has certain risks, such as wipeouts and the danger of rocks, however is it fair to assume that a loose board, one that could easily have been secured by legrope, is an inherent risk?” Obviously Ben and his partners think it isn’t.
“Every surfer has a duty of care to others. What would stop a person wearing a legrope and relieving themself of that duty?” Ben’s not asking me directly but building his case, so I stay silent.
“A legrope costs $30, so cost isn’t prohibitive,” answers Ben. “Plus, I understand the argument about performance, yet you can switch on the WSL and the top longboard competitors are wearing legropes, so it’s not about performance either.”
Clearly Ben and his colleagues believe there’s no adequate reason to not wear a legrope in crowded conditions.
Also, while researching the legalities, the SLL team was made aware of a case heard in Byron Bay District Court in 2014 that bolstered their position. The potted version is that a SUP was rented to a complete novice who took it to The Pass, dropped in on a surfer who subsequently hit rocks while taking evasive action. The victim broke their leg and sought $200,000 damages, and they won. The case successfully challenged the notion that surfing is an inherently dangerous activity.
All of what you’ve heard so far is just one part of a two-fold approach. The crew at SLL are confident enough to make a no win/no pay claim, however, according to Ben, they’re really not in it for the money. A number of staff at SLL surf, including Ben, and they’ve seen what happens at The Pass when people absolve themselves of their duty of care and shun legropes. Thus the ad, which they consider more along the lines of community service.
“We’ll defend victims, if it comes to that,” admits Ben, “however we also thought that legal education was warranted in this case.” And that’s what the ad in the Echo was: public messaging about your duty of care in the surf. Consider it a shot across the bows of anyone who paddles out in crowded surf without a legrope. “There’s no vacuum in the law,” says Ben. “Surfers should know that.”
Ben Crawford and his surfing mates at Somersby Laundry Lomax are hoping their message can alter behaviour. After all, going legrope-free is a recent fashion, it's not entrenched in our culture and can easily be shifted. But for those who won't budge the message is clear: If you surf without a legrope and hurt someone, they can come after you legally.