An incident last summer at a Corvallis athletic club reads like every parent’s nightmare in condensed form. According to a recent article in The Oregonian “the parents of a 5-year-old boy who drowned in a swimming pool at a Corvallis summer camp have filed a $56.6 million lawsuit, claiming the camp didn’t have a lifeguard on duty who might have seen the boy struggling for life over four minutes last summer.”
According to the newspaper the boy went down a waterslide unattended. He was not wearing a life vest, despite his parents having explicitly told the camp that their son would need a flotation device whenever in the water because he cannot swim. The paper reports that he gasped for air and bobbed up and down dozens of times as he struggled. Several camp staff walked past and did not appear to notice. It was only after he was motionless, face-down in the water that anyone tried to save him. From the paper’s account even these efforts leave many questions. Notably, “one staff member pushed an 8-year-old child who was holding onto the side of the pool toward the middle of the pool and urged the child to grab” the drowning boy.
The Oregonian did not detail the exact nature of the family’s lawsuit, though it is fair to infer that an Oregon wrongful death claim under ORS 30.020 is involved. In addition to the athletic club at which the boy was enrolled in a children’s summer day camp, the suit also names several club employees as well as the Oregon Health Authority and Benton County Environmental Health “saying the agencies were responsible for licensing or inspecting swimming pools.”
It is additionally clear that the circumstances of the accident meet the legal standard for second degree Oregon child neglect (ORS 163.545). First degree child neglect – a felony – is unlikely to apply here because that statute mainly covers situations in which children are around controlled substances such as drugs (ORS 163.547).
As an Oregon lawyer with a practice focused on injuries to children I find this story heart-rending on every level. It should also serve as a cautionary tale to all of us as the summer season approaches. The boy’s parents assumed the camp staff would act on their warning that their son could not swim. They also should have been able to count on proper water safety. If no lifeguard was to be present at the pool in a place where small children were running around then clearly there should have been some system in place to keep the kids away from the water unless they were being watched.
Nothing can bring this boy back or ease the family’s grief. Our courts can, however, look carefully at the incident and enforce accountability. We all have to hope that, in doing so, they will ensure that new systems are in place this summer. In the meantime, parents should look closely at any camp facility before signing up and saying goodbye to their children on that first day.
The Oregonian: Boy, 5, drowns at summer camp: Parents sue for $56 million