The Michigan appeals court said the family of a young man who drowned at a state-run school in the region can sue the lifeguard.
William Beals had been at the Michigan Career and Technical Institute in Plainwell for a week when he drowned in a pool in 2009.
Students with disabilities learn vocational skills at the school in Barry County.
Witnesses said lifeguard William Harmon seemed distracted that day while talking to girls and playing with a football.
The 19-year-old Beals was considered a good swimmer, but he didn't emerge from the deep end of the pool.
The appeals court, in a 2-1 decision, agreed with a local judge who said allegations of gross negligence mean the lifeguard isn't entitled to governmental immunity.
Appellate Judge Peter O'Connell dissented, saying the lifeguard isn't to blame.