The first drain entrapment lawsuit known to have successfully cited the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act has been settled.
In July 2009, 56-year-old Bill Stock, a paraplegic, was held under water after his foot and leg became trapped on a large suction grate while he was swimming in a large lagoon pool at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa in Honolulu.
According to court records, it took three adults to free Stock, who died the next day.
Stock’s family sued the Hilton and a number of other parties involved in the lagoon’s engineering, construction and design. The suit was for negligence, wrongful death, and violation of the Consumer Product Safety Act and the VGBA.
Other defendants included Tom Nance Water Resource Engineering; Delta Construction Corp.; Alcon & Associates Inc.; consultant James B. Walfish; and Plas-Tech Ltd.
The case settled for an undisclosed sum.
While the plaintiffs suffered a great loss, they believe the suit may have made a difference in terms of safety awareness, according to their attorney.
“[The relatives] feel like the defendants got the message loud and clear,” said Loretta Sheen, an attorney with Davis Levin Livingston in Honolulu. “They feel satisfied that the Hilton and other defendants are going to take protection really seriously from here on out. ... They feel like they may have done something to affect someone’s life, and they actually feel good about that.”
The body of water where the incident occurred was far from a conventional swimming pool. The 5-acre, man-made lagoon used recirculated ocean water and only had one suction outlet — an 8-foot-long grate that sat close to the water’s surface, the Stocks’ attorneys said.
Though the grate was too large to be blocked by a human body, it had a flow rate of 15,000 gallons per minute which was more than strong enough to pin Stock underwater. A few years before the incident, the lagoon’s original pump was replaced with one powerful enough to boost the turnover rate from 2½ times a day to five times a day.
Witnesses reported seeing small eddies form over the drain, and the attorneys said that fish and debris were pinned against it.
Additionally, the grate was surrounded by rocks on three sides, creating something of a small cave. When filing the lawsuit, Stocks’ attorneys theorized this may have added to the vortexing and suction from the outlet.
The victim’s family charged that the drain cover did not comply with the VGBA and said there was no pump shut-off device or quickly identifiable and accessible emergency shut-off switch.
During discovery for the case, the Stocks’ attorneys found out that the flat drain cover had broken and there had been plans to replace it, Sheehan said. They also learned that the system’s plumbing measured as much as 36 inches in diameter.
Attorneys for most of the defendants could not be reached by press time.
A lawyer for James Walfish characterized his client as a minor player in the tragedy. Though Walfish was involved in some aspects of the lagoon’s design, most of his ideas were not used, said Jeffrey Portnoy from the Honolulu-based firm Cades Schutte.