A New Jersey judge is refusing to order the closure of a beach where three people died when the sand gave way beneath them as they walked near the water’s edge.
In a ruling issued Monday, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez instead directed state and local officials to evaluate safety concerns at the Hereford Inlet beach in North Wildwood. He dismissed a request from the family of Brad Smith, who died in a July 2012 accident, to immediately order the beach closed.
The judge directed the state Department of Environmental Protection and the city of North Wildwood to take “prompt and timely action” to address safety concerns at the beach.
Lawyer Paul D’Amato, representing the Smith family, said the ruling endangers future beachgoers.
“The court’s ruling is not a loss for the Smith family,” he said. “It is a loss for the current and future visitors to North Wildwood and the taxpayers whose local government has turned a blind eye to a known danger of additional underwater landslides on this inlet beach.”
A lawyer for North Wildwood and a spokesman for the DEP did not immediately return messages seeking comment Tuesday.
The judge ruled that Smith’s family had not exhausted all its administrative remedies, something that had to happen before he could order a piece of public property closed.
Smith’s widow, Sandra Smith, of Horsham, Pennsylvania, is suing North Wildwood over the accident that killed Smith and nearly killed their 7-year-old daughter.
Brad Smith was walking in ankle-deep water at the beach with his daughter when the sand collapsed, plunging them and a friend into the swirling waters. A passer-by on a personal watercraft rescued the girl, who was being held above the waves by her father before he drowned.
Three years earlier, Jamila Watkins and 15-year-old Shayne Hart were walking along the water’s edge when the sand gave way beneath them, plunging them into the swirling waters of the inlet, killing both of them.
The plaintiffs have presented a report from a former official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which does extensive beach protection and restoration work in New Jersey, that said tidal conditions undermined sand just under the water line, creating a drop-off of 10 feet or more that’s invisible to people walking along the water’s edge.
North Wildwood’s chief lifeguard said in a deposition the town knew of the condition, which occurs twice each day, for at least six years before Smith drowned.
Monday’s ruling does not affect the wrongful death litigation brought by Smith’s family, which is pending in Superior Court in Cape May County and seeks unspecified damages. In that case, North Wildwood denies any wrongdoing.
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