Massachusetts Swimming Pool Liability: The Consequences for Negligence Can Be Deep – Part One of Two

Summer is usually a time when thoughts turn to cooling off and leisurely days around a swimming pool (especially during heat waves such as we’ve had recently here in Massachusetts.) That makes perfect sense, but in my view as a Boston accident lawyer, not enough people are aware of the dangers of backyard swimming pools – whether in-ground or above-ground. In my career, some of the worst injuries I have seen involve swimming pool injuries. While having a swimming pool at your house can sometimes add to a home’s market value, legally, it can pose serious, and even deadly, hazards.

This was recently made clear in a suit filed in neighboring Connecticut, which resulted in a settlement of $1.1 million to the family of a 3 year-old boy who drowned in a swimming pool. Actually, this case illustrates two important points: 1) The risks that are associated with swimming pools (this falls under “premises liability”); and in this case: 2) The risk that can arise when parents represent to third parties that their son or daughter is capable of caring for another person’s child by babysitting, when in fact they know that their child has no particular skills to do so (this is known as “negligent entrustment.”) This particular case out of Cheshire, Connecticut, involved the death of a 3 year-old boy, Cole Veenhuis, who drowned May 2 2009 in his family’s swimming pool while being baby sat by Krista Repko, a teenager that had been hired by the boy’s parents to baby sit him and his twin sister.

Apparently, after the boy fell into the family pool, the teenage bay sitter “Froze up for a significant period of time and didn’t immediately jump into the pool to rescue the youngster”, according to the attorney for the parents of the deceased boy. As a result, the boy drowned when it appeared that he could have been saved with a quick response. The deceased boy’s mother, Diane Veenhuis, told the New Haven Register in a statement that her son’s death “Was definitely preventable and morally should have been foreseeable by the individuals we entrusted.” Diane and Richard Veenhuis alleged in their suit that the baby sitter’s mother, Michelle Repko, misrepresented her daughter’s abilities as a baby sitter to them, assuring them that her daughter could react responsibly to almost any emergency. “It wasn’t until after the tragedy when information was disclosed, which had we known, we would not have chosen her for a baby sitter,” Diane Veenhuis said.

Following an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the drowning, the police and the Connecticut state attorney’s office chose not to bring charges.

The Veenhuis family plans to put the settlement money in a trust for their daughter to be used in part to help Hannah deal with the pain associated with the loss of her brother, as well as to establish a memorial fund in Cole’s name. “Life doesn’t last forever, but our love for Cole will,” Diane Veenhuis said. “Our hearts are forever broken.”

A case like this illustrates the need to be aware of the dangers that swimming pools represent. In a great many of these types of cases, the injuries and drowning deaths that occur are sustained by children. This is so for a variety of reasons:

• The water is blue and attractive; (in legal parlance, a swimming pool is known as an “attractive nuisance”);

• It is difficult to know exactly how deep a given area of the pool is because unlike in commercial settings (such as hotels) and with municipal pool settings, there is almost ever any signage at the edge of the pool indicating pool depths at particular points along the pool; This increases the odds that neck and back injuries will result when someone jumps into a too-shallow area of a pool. Paralysis injuries are not uncommon.

• The pool is almost always surrounded by concrete or flagstone-type walking surfaces, which are slippery when wet and can cause severe injuries in the form of broken bones and concussions that can result in brain damage.

• Often, there is a diving board present, which can result in traumatic injuries when falling the ‘wrong way’.

In my next post on this topic, I’ll discuss the type of injuries that are common to this type of event, and what legal measures should be taken to minimize them.