The first entrapment lawsuit citing the federal Pool and Spa Safety Act has been filed, yet the series of events that actually occurred are in question.
The wife of a man who drowned in a Pittsburgh athletic club pool has sued the establishment, claiming that her husband was held down by the drain located under 10 feet of water in the pool’s deep end.
However, few details are available, and police investigators say they didn’t see any signs of entrapment.
Yet one thing is clear: Whether or not an entrapment has occurred, the suit marks an important milestone.
“This will send shock waves through the [commercial] real estate community,” said Javier Payan, president of Payan Pool Service, an El Cajon, Calif.-based firm specializing in VGB inspection and retrofits. “There are still people in denial that you actually have to take this seriously, and this is exactly what’s going to happen.”
On April 11, Lorenzo Williams III, 38, was swimming in an indoor pool at the Downtown Athletic Club when his wife Erika realized he was underwater. Unable to swim, she tried to save him using a shepherd’s hook, but the pole wasn’t long enough, according to her attorney, Anthony J. D’Amico. Williams then tried to call authorities, but the phone in the vicinity wasn’t working, D’Amico added. There were no lifeguards on duty, however, detectives on the scene believed a sign had been posted indicating the pool was unmanned, said Pittsburgh Police Commander Tom Stangrecki.
Eventually, Erika Williams activated the fire alarm and employees pulled Lorenzo Williams out of the water, Stangrecki said. He could not be saved.
The suit names club owner Daniel Griffin, as well as the Elmhurst Corp., which owns the Doubletree City Center where the pool was located.
The medical examiner’s office ruled the death an accidental drowning, which eliminates the possibility that Williams suffered a heart attack or other episode while in the water. However, the body is still being examined.
Williams’ suit claims the club is liable for several reasons including the absence of a lifeguard, improper rescue equipment and the lack of a way to summon help. However, the factor that played most prominently in the local press was the statement that the man was entrapped by the suction of the swimming pool drain.
“Mr. Williams was lying on the drain,” said D’Amico, a partner with the Pittsburgh firm Savinis, D’Amico & Kane, LLC. “He was lying there motionless when Mrs. Williams first saw him. She was wondering why he was on the bottom of the pool just lying there.”
The suit itself cites the lack of a “federally mandated anti-entrapment system.” It isn’t known yet how many drains were on the pool or what kind of covers were involved.
Shortly after the filing, the Pool Safety Council, a lobbying group composed largely of safety vacuum release system manufacturers, issued a press release publicizing the entrapment.
Yet that may be premature.
“We strongly believe, and intend to establish, that this unfortunate occurrence had nothing whatsoever to do with the pump or drain on the pool,” said Joseph Selep, attorney for Daniel Griffin and a partner with Pittsburgh-based Zimmer Kunz.
“This pool has been used safely and without incident for years,” he added. “It was not an entrapment. There’s no evidence whatsoever of an entrapment.”
His allegation seems, for now, to be backed up by the detectives who arrived at the scene.
“[The detectives] did not believe that the drain posed any type of factor in the case,” Stangrecki said. “He wasn’t trapped in the drain. The victim was already pulled out by the time we got there.”
Lawrence Caniglia, executive director of the Northeast Spa and Pool Association and an attorney by trade, said it is common practice, when filing a lawsuit, to include every possible explanation for an accident, just in case.
“When discovery comes to a conclusion… then each side will typically file motions asking the judge to throw out parts of the case where there’s no evidence to support it,” Caniglia said. “It could very well be... that maybe there was no entrapment, and then that could actually go by the wayside.”
But whether or not the entrapment claim is factual, pool and spa professionals say the incident only solidifies the need for VGB compliance.
It also sparks a concern that VGB will be cited in incidents where an entrapment did not occur.
“Ultimately you want to get to the truth of what happened, to make sure these things don’t happen again,” Payan said. “But I think what this means is the next time there’s an accident, it’s a bigger judgment for somebody.
"My biggest concern is [that] this is the stuff that’s going to lead people to just close pools down. The liability’s going to be too great.”
The Downtown Athletic Club has closed its doors since the incident.