Sanon v. City of Pella – Pool Drowning Lawsuit Weighed

Summer draws many families poolside for a chance to cool off. But without proper supervision or adequate protections, these visits may turn tragic.
The South Carolina Department of Health reports between 2006 and 2010, accidental drowning was the No. 3 cause of death to children between the ages of 1 and 14, behind motor vehicle accidents and suffocation. It was the No. 1 cause of injury-related death among 1-to-4-year-olds. Nearly 80 percent of these child deaths occurred a private residence.

Between 2000 and 2010, a total of 223 children died of drowning in South Carolina. This is why it’s recommended pool owners have fences, gates, covers and other safety devices around the pools, and also that a caregivers closely supervise children around the water.

The state also requires public swimming pools to adhere to certain criteria, per Regulation 61-51. The statute covers everything from fences to depth markers to slides to sanitation to safety equipment. Lighting too is an important feature. It allows lifeguards and caregivers to spot a person underneath the water when it’s otherwise dark.

The tragic case of Sanon v. City of Pella started when two teen boys drowned in a public pool that had a functional underwater lighting system that was, at the direction of city workers, not in use at the time of their deaths.

According to court records, the city constructed the pool in 2003, and the following year, after it was in regular use, rust appeared on the back of the light sockets in the underwater lights of the pool. The next year, the city’s community services director and the aquatics manager decided for this reason, the center shouldn’t use the underwater lights, even though they did still work. Neither worker consulted with anyone in the city’s engineering, architectural or electrical department before making this decision.

Our Greenville pool injury lawyers understand that the law in Iowa, where this case took place, requires sufficient lighting in public swimming pools deeper than eight feet.

Despite this, the city didn’t arrange for any additional lighting to be placed overhead, nor did they hire additional lifeguards. The city routinely rented out the pool 20 to 30 times annually for private parties at night. The underwater lights were never turned on for these events.

The underlying incident in the Sanon case occurred at one such party where they were participants in a sports camp that rented the facility for an hour. There were 175 children in the pool, as well as 21 counselors. City supplied the lifeguards.

The boys, ages 14 and 15, couldn’t swim and their parents had signed a permission slip indicating they could not swim. However, no one informed the lifeguards non-swimmers would be present.

The water in the pool became very murky as the party wore on. Lifeguards could not seethe bottom of the deep end. But the lights weren’t turned on. The boys used a slide to go into the water. But they never surfaced. Lifeguards didn’t notice. It wasn’t until everyone was out and counselors did a headcount they realized the boys were missing. Their bodies were later found in the deep end.

The boys’ parents sued the city. The city cited sovereign immunity in its motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted city’s motion.

However, parents appealed, arguing the sovereign immunity doctrine was invalid because the city employees’ actions constituted the criminal offense of involuntary manslaughter. The state’s sovereign immunity statutes state criminal acts provide an exception to the sovereign immunity provision.

The Iowa Supreme Court, hearing the appeal, agreed. Plaintiffs presented ample evidence of a criminal act necessary to overcome immunity, at least at the summary judgment phase.

Court remanded the case back to trial court for further proceedings, with instructions that plaintiffs must show by a preponderance of evidence that city’s omissions or acts constituted involuntary manslaughter.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Sanon v. City of Pella, June 26, 2015, Iowa Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
CPSC: “Anchor It!” to Prevent Child Injuries Due to Furniture Tip-Over, June 20, 2015, South Carolina Personal Injury Lawyer

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