The evisceration of a 6-year-old Minnesota girl has brought suction entrapment to the forefront of the national press, and likely will speed passage of the first national pool and spa safety law.
On June 29, Abigail Taylor became entrapped in a wading pool at the Minneapolis Golf Club.
“The drain at the bottom of the wading pool was uncovered,” said Robert Bennett, the Taylor family’s attorney. “She slipped and fell, and a seal was formed.” He said that a 2-inch hole was torn in her rectum and most of her intestines were lost in the evisceration. Doctors had to remove the rest in surgery.
Bennett would not offer specifics, but said he believes the family will take legal action. “Both pool [equipment manufacturer] and operators are jointly liable,” Bennett said. He also stated that the drain was manufactured by Sta-Rite, whose pool product line now is owned by Pentair Water Pool and Spa. Sta-Rite has lost cases in the past, including a $104 million verdict in 2003 that was eventually overturned and settled. The Minneapolis Golf Club did not return calls to Pool & Spa News.
Besides receiving extensive coverage in the press, the incident garnered an entire installment of the cable-TV news program “Nancy Grace.” Bennett appeared on the show, as well as a Minneapolis reporter, a physician, a psychologist, other attorneys and safety advocate Nancy Baker. Baker’s 7-year-old child, Graeme — also the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker — died in 2002 in a spa entrapment incident. Even a former federal prosecutor was on hand to comment as to whether the incident constituted a crime.
No representatives from the pool and spa or aquatics industry were present at the taping of the show.
Because of the press, the first national pool safety law has received widespread coverage again. The Pool & Spa Safety Act — inspired in part by Graeme Baker’s death — originally was introduced in both legislative bodies last year. While the U.S. Senate version passed, the House bill died in the session’s final hours. It was reintroduced in the House in March 2007.
If passed, the bills would allow states to receive grant money by passing their own pool and spa safety laws, as long as they meet certain criteria for addressing drowning and entrapment hazards. The bills would pertain to new and existing pools.
The legislation has moved swiftly. Two weeks after the entrapment, the Senate bill was reintroduced. Due to intense local attention, three Minnesota Congress members felt compelled to add their names to the bills’ lists of sponsors. They are Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad.
The Senate language has passed unanimously through committee and awaits a full Senate hearing. Klobuchar amended the bill to state that all commercial pools must be updated for safety within a year after the law passes in the state that applies. The House bill is scheduled for its committee hearing July 31. The goal now is to pass the bills before Congress recesses Aug. 3, said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla), who authored the House bill.
“The Abigail Taylor tragedy is just another example of how overdue the need for pool safety legislation is, both in terms of suction drain entrapment and drownings in residential swimming pools,” she said.
The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals supports the bills, for the most part. However, there are two sticking points. If the current language passes, states would have to require the following on pools: safety vacuum release systems (SVRS), suction-limiting vents, gravity drainage systems or automatic shut-off systems — in addition to dual main drains and anti-entrapment drain covers.
The association plans to negotiate with the bills’ authors to change the language so it matches APSP’s recently released entrapment standard, which states that dual main drains and the anti-entrapment drain covers would suffice.
“What happened to this poor child is tragic and, from our standpoint, it underscores how important it is for people to become aware of and begin to adhere to the provisions of [APSP’s] new entrapment-avoidance standard,” said APSP President/CEO Bill Weber. “This is the answer. If the provisions of this standard are employed, no form of entrapment could happen again.”
Wasserman Schultz said she anticipates discussions, but doesn’t plan to change the bill. “It’s something we’re discussing with [APSP], but not something I currently favor,” she said. “I think the standard in the bill is stronger.”
Paul Pennington, president of SVRS producer Vac-Alert Industries in Fort Pierce, Fla., agrees with the Congresswoman. He said the law should require products such as his to compensate for instances where one of the drains becomes clogged or a drain cover comes off.
“We know that had the SVRS been installed [in the Minneapolis pool], it would have certainly reduced the damages substantially,” Pennington said.
APSP also takes issue with the House bill’s barrier language. Unlike the Senate, the House would only permit the dwelling to constitute one side of a barrier if it had no doors or windows. The association plans to talk with the author on this point.
“There is no provision in any state law that goes that far,” Weber said. “Because there’s no policing of what goes on in backyards, it’s critical that the homeowner choose from a variety of layers of protection. We’re not against isolation fencing; we’re against mandating it because if people don’t want it, they won’t use it. They’ll tear it down.”
However, Wasserman Schultz doesn’t expect to change the bill. “Sixty-five percent of the drownings [involving] young children take place … in the pool of the home where the child was last seen,” she said, quoting statistics from the National Safe Kids Campaign.
“So if you use a dwelling wall that has a window or door as the fourth side of the barrier,” she added, “then you are leaving 65 percent of the children who could potentially drown vulnerable because they can wander out the back door and fall in the pool.”
Danny Brown also contributed to this story.