It was a Friday evening in Gainesville Georgia. Three-year-old twins John and Koraleigh were in their grandparents’ front yard with teenage brothers and their girlfriends. The teens had brought a television from inside and were planning a “movie under the stars.” Mom was at her home next door but assumed the children were being watched as she could hear their laughing and playing. Now she says, “Had I known, I would have never assumed, never have assumed.”
Like many a three-year-old, John had slipped past the fence behind the grandparents’ house and through the gate. Although the gate door was closed, it was not locked. Stephanie said, “The next thing I know, one of the teenagers was yelling, “Momma, Brother is in the pool.”
John was found floating lifeless in the deep end of the pool with a pool net it appears he was trying to use like his grandfather did to clean the pool. John Michael was airlifted to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, where he died four hours later.
Now the twins’ mom is trying to spread the word about the dangers of what can happen when you’re not paying attention to your child, even if it is just for a moment to check the messages on your phone. She says, “If I can tell his story, if one parent can listen to it and say ‘You know what I need to pay a little closer attention to my child because it can happen to me’ then he won’t have died in vain. Because no parent should have to know the heartache.”
Years ago, I handled a case that was in many ways remarkably similar except the child survived with severe brain damage caused by near drowning of a beautiful 19-month-old girl on a soft April afternoon in Atlanta. While her mom was breast feeding a newborn sibling on the sheltered patio of their condo, the toddler quietly slipped away. Mom frantically searched in one direction, guessing that the child had gone toward a playmate’s home.
But the child toddled in the opposite direction, toward the condominium pool that had not yet opened for the season. Even at 19 months, she was able to reach and open the substandard latch on the “locked” pool gate. She fell in the uncovered pool, apparently reaching for a floating ball that may have been there all winter. After exhaustive investigation, I found a maintenance man later testified he had told the complex manager for months they needed to replace the latch with a child proof model.
Demonstrating how anoxia(oxygen deprivation) in a near drowning brain injury can be worse than death, she had catastrophic brain damage. She had a feeding tube for the years she survived, her limbs drew up in contractures and although her beautiful blue eyes tracked people around the room, her neurologist swore that there was no cognitive activity in her brain. It was as if the lights were on but nobody was home.
No amount of money could heal her but we were able to win enough to provide for the 24/7 skilled home nursing care she required. And to some degree the case may have helped to raise the consciousness of property managers and insurers about the need for proper pool enclosures, preventing tragedies for other children.
That experience led me to leave a firm where I mostly defended cases for insurance companies and pursue my calling representing individuals and families.
A hot summer afternoon at the pool offers rest and relaxation perfect for the season — cool water, a relaxing chaise chair, and a cold glass of lemonade by your side. However, pleasure of a pool must be coupled with prudence in swimming pool safety due to the risks of drowning , near drowning and spinal cord injuries due to diving accidents.
Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States. Every day, about ten people die from unintentional drowning. Of these, two are children aged 14 or younger.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reports that each year nearly 300 children under the age of five drown in a pool or spa and another 5,100 children under the age of 15 go to hospital emergency rooms for near-drowning injuries. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 and African American children between the ages of 5 and 19 are most at risk of drowning. More than 200 young children drown in backyard swimming pools each year.
To help prevent these tragic deaths while at the pool this summer, people need to be aware of their surroundings. They also need to make sure there are proper safety precautions taken before setting foot inside a pool setting.
PoolSafely.gov is a CPSC website devoted to promoting safety at water parks, municipal swimming pools and other indoor or outdoor aquatic facilities to demonstrate their support of the national campaign and the life-saving message that “simple steps save lives.” It includes a lot of good ideas to help keep your children and grandchildren safe during swimming pool season.
1. Maintain an effective fence and gate enclosure around any swimming pool to prevent young children from wandering in without adult supervision.
- The fence must be at least four feet high, with no openings larger than four inches.
- The gate must be self-closing and self-latching.
- The latch on the gate must require one to reach over the gate and lift up, so that small children cannot open it.
- All chairs, tables, large toys or other objects that would allow a child to climb up to reach the gate latch or enable the child to climb over the isolation fence should be removed or kept inside the fenced area.
- If your house serves as a fourth side of a fence around a pool, install and religiously use door alarms and install window guards on windows facing pools or spas.
- Install pool and gate alarms to alert you when children manage to get past the first line of defense. Consider using a surface wave or underwater alarm.
- When my children were about that age, we sent them to a swimming teacher who had a great reputation for teaching young children the basics of swimming.
- Helicopter parents were banned from the pool while the swim teacher endured the tykes’ screams and tears. We took both of our kids to him and they came back ready to start daily practices with the neighborhood pool swim team.
3. Make sure a responsible adult trained in CPR and first aid, or a lifeguard, or is present and attentive at all times when children are in the pool area.
- If you have a home pool, take Red Cross water safety, CPR and first aid courses.
- If your neighborhood operates a pool, push to hire a qualified lifeguard if possible.
- Issue the adult supervisor an item such as a whistle, bracelet, etc. to reinforce which adult is in charge of the safety of the children.
4. Remember that a person who is drowning will not look like the dramatic “drowning”you see in TV and movies.
- More often, drowning victims are not flailing away and waving their arms around because instinct actually drives them to push themselves upward by moving their arms lateral and downward.
5. Maintain constant, undistracted visual supervision of young children in and around the swimming pool.
- Never leave a young child unattended in or near water but stay in arm’s reach of very young kids. Do not trust a child’s life to another child or even an unreliable, distracted adult. A child can drown in the time it takes to answer a cell phone call or respond to a text message.
- Remove small children from the swimming pool for any distraction such as a telephone call, use of restroom, etc.
- Make sure children who have not learned to swim wear a US Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device.
Floaties, rafts and inflatable toys should never be substituted for adult supervision.
- Teach young children to ask permission before going near water and enforce that rule with meaningful discipline.
- If a child is missing, check the water first– every second counts!
- No diving
- No swimming alone
- No running in pool area
- No riding toys or electronic devices near pool
- Stay away from drains
- Don’t just post the rules where easily ignored. Reinforce their importance and impose meaningful consequences for breaking the rules.
7. Make sure your pool and spa drains, drain covers and pool and spa covers comply with federal safety requirements.
- Older drains with uncontrolled suction posed a risk of drowning or disemboweling a child. Since 2007, federal law has to require anti-entrapment drain covers and other safety devices, as needed.
- Under the law, all public pools and spas must have ANSI/ASME A112.19.8 performance standard, or the successor standard ANSI/APSP-16 2011 compliant drain covers installed and a second anti-entrapment system installed, when there is a single main drain other than an unblockable drain.
- Maintain pool and spa covers in good working order.
- If you do not know what kind of drains, drain covers and pool covers you have, ask your pool service provider whether yours meet these standards.
8. Be prepared for emergencies.
- Make sure everyone in the home knows how to respond to water emergencies by having an emergency plan in place with your children
- Have appropriate equipment, such as reaching or throwing equipment, a cell phone, life jackets and a first aid kit, within a reach at poolside, not inside the house.
- Make sure even very young children know how and when to call 911.
9. Remember pool hygiene as well as safety.
- Keep your pool clean and clear by maintaining proper chemical levels, circulation and filtration. I represented a child in a near drowning in which an apartment pool was so murky that emergency personnel had trouble finding a black child on the white bottom of the pool.
- By keeping a pool clean and hygienic, you can see what is happening in the pool and minimize risks of earaches, rashes or diseases.
- Protect your skin. Limit the amount of direct sunlight you receive between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and wear a carefully chosen sunscreen.
- Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water regularly, even if you’re not thirsty. Avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine
May you and your children reach the end of the summer swimming pool season as you began it, safe and healthy, though more tan and fit.
Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, and lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice. His Atlanta-based civil trial practice is focused on representation of plaintiffs in cases of castastrophic personal injuryand wrongful death.