Sorting out Mavericks accident: Responsibility unclear 

A week after mammoth waves swept through a crowd watching the Mavericks Surf Contest and brought serious injuries on 13 fans, it’s still not clear who might be responsible for the damages — or if no one is.

So far, no one has even admitted to owning the strip of beach that dozens were washed from on Feb. 13 while watching the annual big-wave surf contest.

The event, world-famous for the huge waves tamed by surfers, this year became famous for massive waves that swept over a breakwater and beach, washing spectators into the lagoon behind them.

The breakwater had warning signs of rogue waves, but that didn’t stop the contest organizers from setting up a scaffolding tower for commentators and judges — as they have for years — or fans from gathering around to watch. The waves took out the tower, the contest’s sound system and dozens of cameras, purses, phones and backpacks of unlucky contest-goers.

Contest organizer Mavericks Surf Ventures has said they are not responsible for the injuries, noting they’ve encouraged crowds to watch the contest on the Web or at AT&T ballpark, where it’s simulcast. In an e-mail, Mavericks CEO Keir Beadling said the organization is “disappointed that a number of folks did not have a good experience on contest day, particularly since the events out on the contest waters truly made surfing history. We’re not happy about that at all.”

He did not comment on whether the organization has received any claims or suits over injuries.

Meanwhile, there is still confusion over who even owns the land where the injuries took place.

San Mateo County immediately checked after the contest and discovered it does not own the land, said County Counsel Michael Murphy. He said the beach is owned by a separate entity — the San Mateo County Harbor District, while the bluff is owned by the state.

But San Mateo County Harbor District General Manager Peter Grenell said the breakwater is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, while the beach is owned by the Air Force, whose Vandenberg Air Force Base has a satellite installation at the top of the bluff.

However, Vandenberg’s Public Affairs chief said that the Air Force’s property ends at the top of the cliff.

The only entity to admit owning any property in the vicinity is the Corps of Engineers, who say they built and own the breakwater. However, spokesman J.D. Hardesty said that signs were posted stating the area was dangerous, warning of rogue waves that “meet legal requirements for notification so we are not liable.”

Further, he said, no one ever told the Corps that the event was being held or that anyone would be setting up observation towers on its land.

“No one contacted my office asking for permission, and that’s something we wouldn’t give, because we don’t recommend anyone go up there because of the inherent danger,” he said.

Wrong place, wrong time

Surf fan Pamela Massette remembers thinking she was perfectly safe in what she said was the designated safe area of the beach, but before she knew it, she was underwater and swept into the lagoon.

This week, she’ll undergo surgery for a spiral fracture in her hand.

“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

Massette said she has good insurance and has no plans to pursue reimbursement for her injuries. But she expects other people may have reason to act differently.

“I’m grateful that I have health care, but I tell you what, if I didn’t have it, I’d be looking to find help somewhere,” she said.

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