Who’s Responsible for These Swimmers’ Deaths?

Did these beach-goers go in the ocean at their own risks, or did the city of Miami Beach have a duty to warn swimmers of danger? You be the judge.

Miami beach

Rabbi Israel Poleyeff, a high school teacher in Cedarhurst, New York, didn’t have much time for vacations. Neither did his wife, Eugenie, a school secretary. That’s why the couple, both in their 60s, had been looking forward to a trip to Miami Beach during the break between school terms in February 1997.

Zachary Breaux, another New Yorker, headed to Miami Beach that week as well. The 36-year-old jazz guitarist was there with his wife, Frederica, and their young daughters, Alexis, Mia and Nina. Breaux’s latest album, Uptown Groove, had just reached No. 14 on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart, and the family had gone to Miami Beach to celebrate. Neither family could have known that their lives were about to be tragically linked.

The Breauxes were staying at the Seville Hotel, on the water at 29th Street. On their last day of vacation, they strolled out to join other beach-goers already enjoying the sand, sun and surf. The beach had a city-run bathhouse with showers and picnic tables, and a tiki hut that housed Hurricane Beach Rentals, with beach chairs, umbrellas and watersport equipment. What the beach did not have was a lifeguard.

That same day, the Poleyeffs made their way down to the 29th Street beach. Eugenie Poleyeff loved to swim. So, as her husband enjoyed the sunny day, Eugenie joined a number of others already in the water. But no one at the 29th Street beach knew that a riptide was rushing with deadly force under the surface.

A riptide is a narrow slice of rapidly coursing water that moves away from the shore—and Eugenie had the extreme bad luck of swimming right into this perilous current. The powerful riptide immediately pulled her out to sea.

As Eugenie cried out for help, it was Zachary Breaux, building sand castles with his daughters, who heard her screams. The young father shot into the water, while his wife ran toward the boardwalk to find a lifeguard.

Zachary’s daring leap into the sea made perfect sense to his family: In 1988, the excellent swimmer and former Eagle Scout had saved a drowning man off the coast of Italy. But the riptide proved too strong even for him: Zachary was also overcome by the ocean’s force.

Horrified bystanders gathered at the surf’s edge and watched the two swimmers thrash in the ocean. Incredibly, a group of men were able to snatch the pair and bring them to shore. A few of the men were still administering CPR when a lifeguard ran up from a beach eight blocks away. But it was too late. Eugenie and Zachary both died.

The Poleyeff and Breaux families sued Miami Beach, arguing that the city had control over the area. The city should have warned swimmers of rip currents, they claimed. And why weren’t lifeguards on duty? Anyone could see people were swimming. Didn’t Miami Beach have a duty to provide ocean-lovers with a safe place to swim? After all, the city seemed to be encouraging people to swim by supplying public showers and watersport rentals. At every other beach where the city offered these amenities, there were also lifeguards. The day of the drowning, the lifeguard at the 21st Street beach, just eight blocks away, had even posted riptide warning flags. This tragedy could have been avoided if Miami Beach had shown reasonable care.

The city saw its responsibilities differently. Miami Beach’s lawyers certainly did not think licensing beach equipment rentals increased the city’s responsibility for swimmers. And the attorneys were adamant that the city couldn’t protect against riptides, events that occur suddenly, randomly, and in oceans all over the world. How could the city protect people from the natural force of the sea? Keep in mind that Florida has over 2,000 miles of shoreline. It would be impossible to protect the public at all times. Besides, the city council had decided which beaches along the vast shoreline to specify as swimming areas. These beaches had posted signs informing the public that swimming was allowed. The 29th Street beach had not been designated a swimming area, and had no sign indicating that swimming was—or was not—allowed.

For Miami Beach to be held liable for the deaths, a city attorney argued, “you’d have to say that the Atlantic Ocean itself is a hazardous condition that must be guarded and protected against.” People have a right to swim wherever they want, the city said, but Miami Beach didn’t have a duty to protect them wherever and whenever they chose to swim.

Did the city of Miami Beach have a duty to warn swimmers of danger, or did Poleyeff and Breaux swim at their own risk?

Next: The Verdict »

Miami beach

The Verdict:

The Florida Supreme Court made clear that Miami Beach was running the beach on 29th Street as a public swimming area. The city was responsible for the beach and water activities.

The court added that by supplying amenities, especially beach rentals, the city influenced people’s selection of that area for swimming. The public was led to believe that swimming was allowed—signs or no signs. The court even went so far as to say that Miami Beach knew people were swimming there and as a result had provided access from the boardwalk as well as beach facilities, such as showers. The city, whether it admitted it or not, was running a swimming area at the 29th Street beach, and had a duty to warn swimmers of the possible dangers.

Years passed since Israel Poleyeff and Frederica Breaux lost their spouses, and a settlement from Miami Beach seems likely. Lifeguards are now posted at the 29th Street beach, and the city’s website provides information on rip currents. Two more Poleyeff grandchildren have been born, one named for Eugenie. And Zachary Breaux’s album, the one that put him on the Billboard chart, is still for sale. The last song on the CD is called “I Love This Life.”

Was justice served? Should the city be liable for these deaths? Sound off in the comments.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest