Owning Up to a Boy's Death
Rare but Grisly Swimming Pool Accident Spurs Unusual Prosecution of Executive
By ASHBY JONESThe prosecution spotlighted a rare but gruesome accident called entrapment, in which powerful suction from a pool's drain traps a swimmer underwater. The case also could pave the way for similar prosecutions.
After the six-year-old, Zachary Cohn, was fatally trapped underwater in 2007 with his arm caught in the pool's drain, Connecticut prosecutors charged Mr. Lionetti, president of Shoreline Pools, of Stamford, with manslaughter.
The prosecutors claimed that the company had failed to install a device that would have shut off the pump when an object got in the way.
Pool-industry experts say the criminal charges against Mr. Lionetti were the first ever lodged against an industry executive for an entrapment injury.
"It was clear that both Lionetti and Shoreline's behavior was to pay lip service to safety regulations," said Ernie Teitell, the Cohns' lawyer in separate civil litigation. "The plea indicates that safety has to be a number one priority."
Mr. Lionetti's lawyer, Richard Meehan, didn't return calls seeking comment. A representative for Shoreline Pools declined to comment. The prosecutors who handled the case didn't return calls requesting comment.
A federal bill was signed into law in 2007, after Zachary drowned, to prevent entrapment in public pools and spas. The Virginia Graeme Baker Act was named after the seven-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker who died in 2002 when suction from a drain trapped her at the bottom of a spa.
In entrapment, swimmers can be pinned to the floor of the pool or otherwise trapped until they drown or suffer serious injuries, including disembowelment. According to statistics gathered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, from 1999 to 2008 there were reports of 83 entrapments nationwide, 11 of which involved fatalities. Small children are especially vulnerable.
Pool makers have made significant improvements in recent years, but safety advocates want them to move faster, and there are gaps in the patchwork of federal and state regulations that govern the pool industry.
The industry, with its main political arm, the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, has lobbied against tougher rules, safety advocates say.
"They've fought safety efforts every step of the way," said Nancy Baker, the mother of the girl killed in the 2002 accident. "It's always been more about saving money than safety with them."
Carvin DiGiovanni, a senior director with the APSP, said his organization had worked closely with federal lawmakers leading up to the Virginia Graeme Baker Act.
The law requires all public pools and spas to employ special upgraded drain covers to prevent entrapment and, in some instances, to install devices that reduce the water force should an object get stuck in the drain. Violations can bring civil or criminal penalties.
"Safety has always been a core value of the association and remains a core value," said Mr. DiGiovanni.
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