Philadelphia is gearing up for another summer as it prepares to open its pools for the first time this year.
According to the City’s Deputy Recreation Commissioner, Leo Dignam, Philadelphia will open the first block of its 70 outdoor pools on Friday, June 20th to coincide with the last day of the academic year. The City will finally open all of its pools on July 1st. The openings will be staggered as the City looks to fully staff its pools, train its lifeguards, and implement key policies and procedures to ensure the safety of young swimmers.
More recently, however, apartment complex pools have been making media headlines. Already, Philadelphia news media outlets have reported several instances of pool-related accidents or injuries. The stories are equally discouraging: teenager drowns in 5 feet of water; 12 year old suffers near drowning incident; and near-drowning at pool with lifeguards on duty. Unfortunately, these tragic stories are all too common.
For young children, drowning statistics depict a dire scenario. A quick internet search reveals that, among children aged 1 to 4, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional injury or death. Parents can be proactive and help minimize the risk of drowning by signing their child up for swimming lessons. A research study published in a peer reviewed journal concludes that participation in formal swimming lessons is associated with an 88 percent reduction of risk of drowning for children aged 1 to 4.
Given the seriousness of the issue facing the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has researched and identified several factors affecting pool injuries & drowning risk:
- Lack of swimming ability;
- Lack of barriers (e.g., pool fencing, specifically, a four sided isolation fence); and
- Lack of close supervision.
A comprehensive drowning prevention strategy must focus on improving/identifying swimming ability, increasing barriers to prevent young children from having unsupervised access to pool areas, and improving the supervision of swimmers and non-swimmers at pools.
Pool Injuries, Drowning and Near-Drowning Injuries Explained
Despite the prevalence of drowning and near-drowning injuries, the drowning process is not very well understood. In a near-drowning incident, water fills and collapses the lungs, and deprives the body of oxygen, increasing the risk of heart attack and severe brain damage. Long term disabilities range from memory problems and learning disabilities, to a permanent loss of basic functioning. As described by a panel of medical doctors and experts who have studied the physiological effects of drowning:
The drowning process is a continuum that begins when the victim’s airway lies below the surface of the liquid, usually water, at which time the victim voluntarily holds his or her breath. Breath holding is usually followed by an involuntary period of laryngospasm secondary to the presence of liquid in the oropharynx or larynx. During this period of breath holding and laryngospasm, the victim is unable to breathe gas. This results in oxygen being depleted and carbon dioxide not being eliminated. The victim then becomes hyperbaric, hypoxemic, and acidotic. During this time the victim will frequently swallow large quantities of water. The victim’s respiratory movements may become very active, but there is no exchange of air because of the obstruction at the level of the larynx. As the victim’s arterial oxygen tension drops further, laryngospasm abates, and the victim actively breathes liquid. The amount of liquid inhaled varies considerably from victim to victim. Changes occur in the lungs, body fluids, blood-gas tensions, and electrolyte concentrations, which are dependent on the composition and volume of the liquid aspirated and duration of submersion.
Holding Pool Owners and Managers Responsible for Pool-Related Injuries, Accidents, and Drowning
Simply put, pool owners and managers have a duty to their guests. Whether that responsibility has been met, or was improperly abdicated, is the question that every pool drowning lawyer must answer. No matter how many signs a pool posts, (e.g. “swim at your own risk” and/or “no lifeguard on duty”), pool owners and managers are not necessarily shielded from liability to victims and their loved ones for pool injuries or fatalities.
In fact, signs may be particularly ineffective measures at a pool with water slides, diving boards, exit ladders, and spray fountains because attractions disguise the dangerous nature of the pool. Children and/or non-swimmers inevitably fail to appreciate the risks associated with swimming at the seemingly innocent looking pools.
Similarly, a pool manager/owner who mistakenly relies on signs to warn swimmers of “no lifeguard on duty” may still be found to have violated a duty of reasonable care to a pool injury victim. A swimmer who acknowledges the “no lifeguard on duty” sign and a “swim at your own risk sign” may be comfortable in shallow water, but unable to swim in water of 5 feet or greater. A failure to post and maintain visible depth markings around the pool, or a sudden drop in the pool bottom, may cause a swimmer to cross into water that is too deep for comfort, and therefore dangerous to the swimmer.
In this scenario, the effectiveness of the warning sign is undermined by other pool safety failures and designs. A skilled Pennsylvania lawyer specializing in pool death and drowning law can properly investigate these claims and use expert aquatic consultants and engineers to determine whether a pool owner/manager can be found liable.
Under certain circumstances, Pennsylvania law may require the pool to have lifeguards on duty. But the absence of lifeguards may be economically motivated. While “Swim at your own risk” signs may be a cost-effective alternative to trained lifeguards, the warning signs are not necessarily a one size fits all solution that pool management/ownership desires. Instead, liability will depend on the circumstances of the environment at the water-park or pool.
Nor does hiring lifeguards insulate pool owners/managers from liability. Lifeguards must be trained to identify signs of drowning, to scan areas of a pool properly, and to react to drowning situations. The job is not easy. Lifeguards’ eyes must be constantly moving and focused on the water; add time, heat, and screaming swimmers to the equation and you have a guaranteed recipe for fatigue, and a consequent serious pool injury or fatality.