The first known plaintiff to cite the Virginia Graeme Baker Act in a wrongful-death lawsuit is no longer claiming that her husband died from an entrapment.
Though she names other factors, such as improper rescue equipment and insufficient staffing, as the direct cause of her husband’s death, her lawsuit still cites a VGB violation.
On April 11, 2009, 38-year-old Lorenzo Williams and his family were swimming at a pool in Pittsburgh’s Downtown Athletic Club. After losing sight of Williams, his wife, Erika, spotted him lying motionless at the bottom of the pool’s deep end.
Erika Williams, who could not swim, made numerous attempts to save her husband, first trying to grasp him with a nearby shepherd’s hook that proved to be too short, and then running to the front desk for help, only to find no one was there. She also tried to call 911 from a phone in the pool area, but it didn’t work.
Staff members eventually were found; however, the first was unable to pull Williams’ 6-foot-1-inch, 202-pound frame out of the water. The second employee got him out of the pool, but Erika Williams estimated her husband had already been underwater 15 minutes. Two other workers attempted to give Williams chest compressions, but because his mouth was foaming, were afraid to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Williams was transported to a nearby hospital, where he died.
What happened to Lorenzo Williams while he was underwater is unknown. He was a capable swimmer and, according to his wife, had no ailment that would cause him to lose consciousness. In her initial complaint against the Downtown Athletic Club and the Doubletree Hotel and Suites housing the facility, Erika Williams explained this mystery by alleging that her husband was stuck to the drain. These claims received prominent coverage in the local press.
But even back then, police investigators said the evidence did not point to an entrapment and Williams’ attorney said much more discovery was yet to be performed.
The most recently filed court documents focus on equipment and staff issues rather than drain covers. Local code required lifeguards to be present when the pool was used, according to the plaintiff, who also stated that the athletic club had been cited more than once for violating that code, with the last time as recently as a few weeks before the drowning.
Both sides admit the pool was far from VGB-compliant. Even court documents filed by the defendant state that the 17-inch square drain didn’t have a cover. The facility owners claimed to have not known about the law, court documents said.
But the defendants strongly dispute the original entrapment claim. Reports from expert witnesses say that, among other things, the pump was only capable of moving water at approximately 0.34 feet per second, well under the maximum-allowed flow rates. Additionally, if Lorenzo Williams had been entrapped, he could not have been removed from the pool by staff, according to the defense. And finally, the coroner found no marks on the body that would have resulted from being pinned to the drain.
The coroner’s report called Williams’ death an accidental drowning and stated that the victim showed no sign of coronary artery disease or other cardiovascular abnormality. However, the defendants claim the victim passed out underwater. They state that Williams had diabetes, had lost consciousness in the past, and had a slightly enlarged heart. Additionally, the defendants said, there was no account of the victim struggling or seeking help, which he would have done if he were conscious. Considering this, the defense further stated, it isn’t clear that Williams would have survived if he’d been removed from the pool sooner.
The defendants deny liability for the drowning, saying the victim signed a release and that signs were posted stating there were no lifeguards. They also said the shepherd’s hook was not meant to rescue an unconscious person in the deep end, but rather, someone in the shallow end who could actively help themselves back to land.
Yet the removal of an entrapment claim from the court documents doesn’t mean the facility’s lack of VGB compliance won’t come up in further proceedings, said Ray Arouesty, an attorney and president of Arrow Insurance Service in Simi Valley, Calif.
“The plaintiff’s attorney would attempt to introduce [the infraction] to show an overall pattern of neglect when it came to maintaining the pool,” he said.
“A pool owner who has failed to comply with the VGBA requirements is going to have a much more difficult time defending themselves in court in a drowning case, even if it’s unrelated to entrapment, because of the inference that a jury could draw,” Arouesty added.
Attorneys for both parties declined to comment on ongoing litigation.