David Lionetti has made history.
The CEO of Stamford, Conn.-based Shoreline Pools was the first
contractor ever to face criminal charges for a drowning that
occurred in a pool his company built.
On April 13, Lionetti pleaded guilty to negligent homicide for the
2007 death of Zachary Archer Cohn, a 6-year-old whose arm was
entrapped in a wall drain meant to feed a spillover spa.
“It’s a very fair and reasonable outcome,” says
Lionetti’s attorney, Richard Meehan Jr. of Meehan Meehan and
Gavin in Bridgeport, Conn. “It was a great relief for David
Lionetti. Throughout all this, he’s been haunted by the fact
that something that he and his family have done for 40 years, which
is try to bring fun to people, ultimately had a part to play in the
death of a little guy.”
At first it seemed like that “fair and reasonable
outcome” would be much more severe. A year after the
drowning, Greenwich police charged Lionetti with second-degree
manslaughter — a felony — saying that he recklessly
caused Zachary’s death. The builder faced a maximum penalty
of 10 years in prison. But in the end, a carefully crafted
agreement allowed him to plead guilty to negligent homicide, a
misdemeanor, while his company accepted the second-degree
The industry has taken notice. Not only was a builder held
criminally liable, but the CEO — someone who presumably never
touched the pool — was arrested. And the unusual plea led to
equally unusual penalties. Here, we explore the history of the
case, its unique outcome and the industry’s reaction.
A tragedy in Greenwich
Pool and spa professionals have been carefully watching this case
ever since the entrapment occurred.
Shoreline was hired in 2005 to build a pool for the new home that
was eventually purchased by the Cohns. The vessel contained four
drains — two in the pool and two in an accompanying
However, each outlet was connected to a different pump, thus
creating four separate single-drains. Moreover, the project was not
equipped with safety vacuum release systems. Both deficiencies
violated a state code, which had passed the year before, that
required dual drains and SVRS’s on all new
In 2006, the pool passed inspection with the town of Greenwich in
spite of the obvious infractions.
The drain that entrapped Zachary fed into a pump that controlled
the spa’s spillover waterfeature. It sat on the pool wall
about three feet below the surface of the water.
According to court documents, a Shoreline service technician had
noted a loose drain cover before the entrapment, but the company
never fixed it, nor warned the Cohns to stay out of the pool.
In July 2007, Zachary’s arm became stuck in the drain, and
even though two adults tried to free him, he was not extricated
until his mother shut off power to the entire house. He died
shortly afterward. In addition to receiving industry-wide
attention, the incident was covered extensively by the mainstream
Though Lionetti avoided a felony conviction, his company did not.
As part of the plea bargain, Shoreline Pools, as an entity,
accepted the second-degree manslaughter charge originally aimed at
Lionetti was dealt a suspended one-year sentence, along with three
years’ probation. In that time, he must complete 500 hours of
community service. Currently he is set to perform janitorial duties
at a local Boys & Girls Club, according to local press accounts.
For its part, Shoreline Pools faces the same probationary period as
Lionetti. In addition, company officials must identify 100
installations in Connecticut that do not meet safety codes and
update them free of charge. These retrofits must be completed at a
rate of at least 10 pools per year for the next 10 years. The
company further agreed to give $150,000 to the ZAC Foundation, a
safety-awareness organization started by the Cohns.
Shoreline also must supply the ZAC Foundation with the addresses of
every pool built in Connecticut since the SVRS and dual-drain
mandate began, and pay to send a safety brochure to those
homeowners. In addition, the company will sponsor safety booths at
the International Pool|Spa|Patio Expo and the Atlantic City Pool
& Spa Show for the next three years.
Since the incident, Shoreline Pools has instituted changes to
prevent another entrapment, Meehan says. In order to comply with
the state’s building code, the company has retrofitted every
pool it’s constructed since Sept. 1, 2004, free of charge.
Owners of Shoreline installations that were built before the code
change were given the option of having their pools retrofitted for
cost, the attorney adds.
The firm made in-house changes as well, including a training
program for staff members instructing them on how to properly
handle safety issues.
“All Shoreline employees have been very strictly trained in
recognizing inherent dangers,” Meehan says.
In addition, a staff member has been appointed to stay abreast of
building codes, since Lionetti claimed he was unaware of the SVRS
requirement when the Cohns’ pool was built.
“In his case, it was a failure to perceive that there was an
unjustifiable risk,” Meehan said. “If there’s a
change in the law, irrespective of how difficult it is to learn,
all citizens are nonetheless charged with [knowing] what the law
But the new face of Shoreline is philosophical as well as
procedural. The company now endorses SVRS’s and supports
legislation to require them in new pools nationwide, Lionetti
stated in a press release. The comment may have referred to efforts
by the Cohns to persuade the Consumer Product Safety Commission to
mandate SVRS’s on all pools, Meehan explains. He would not
Reactions to the plea bargain were mixed across the industry.
Considering the code violations, many believe Shoreline fared as
well as possible. In fact, some went so far as to say Lionetti
walked away nearly unscathed. “Basically the pool builder and
his company got virtually no punishment,” says attorney Mark
Stapke, a partner at Michelman & Robinson in Los Angeles.
“A year’s probation and then that little bit of
community service is nothing when you’re talking about the
death of a 6-year-old.”
Although many industry insiders considered Shoreline Pools at
fault, some also are uneasy over the idea of a company CEO facing
criminal charges for an entrapment. And the headline found on the
ZAC Foundation’s press release encapsulates their concerns:
“Groundbreaking case paves the way for families to seek
justice in pool entrapment deaths.”
There is a long-standing legal tradition of corporate protection
from individual liability. Known as the corporate veil, this
shields company shareholders from being held personally liable for
the firm’s debts or infractions. It usually holds water in a
civil case, but, as the industry found out, it does not stand in
criminal proceedings. Many worry that cases like this could become
What occurred in Connecticut won’t serve as legal precedent
in another state, but it could pave the way for contractors across
the nation to be charged criminally for errors that previously
would have been considered negligence, according to Ray Arouesty,
an attorney and president of Arrow Insurance Service in Simi
“This was a cutting-edge prosecution,” he says.
“Given the success with which the prosecution brought this
case, I think district attorneys in more states will be willing to
[bring criminal charges], so I do think this case is going to have
an effect. I do think this opens the door to more of these
What’s more, another contractor’s punishment could be
even harsher if a similar situation arose.
“When you’re talking about the death of a 6-year-old,
based on an admitted defect in the construction of a pool, I think
you could well see another jurisdiction’s heavier
consequences, including possibly some jail time,” Stapke
In the meantime, concerned observers take some comfort in the fact
that Lionetti wasn’t charged with a felony.
“As a pool builder I am a bit relieved,” says Michael
Giannamore, vice president of Aqua Pool & Patio Inc. in East
Windsor, Conn. “It’s just scary, that something could
occur in my family’s business that I don’t realize or
miss for whatever reason, and I could be held criminally
But, like many in the industry, he is of two minds.
“As a father, I shudder at the thought of what the family has
gone through,” he says. “So I don’t think
there’s any good outcome to this.”