In June 2010, a tragic drowning occurred at a city-operated swimming pool in High Point. The victim, Anthony Lee Hayes, a 17-year-old student at T. Wingate Andrews High School, was found unconscious on the floor of the deep end of the pool and was unable to be resuscitated.
It's always devastating when a young person dies, but it is especially difficult to swallow when the death could possibly have been prevented. In any case, it is impossible to know what "might have been" which is why we rely on evidence to determine liability in the accident in question. The doctor who performed the autopsy stated that Mr. Hayes had been under the water ranging from 3-5 minutes. Lifeguards were notified by other swimmers that there was someone under the water and that is when they attempted to rescue him. The evidence of overcrowding in the pool in addition to the inattention and failure by lifeguards to detect that a swimmer was in distress generally provides a good foundation for a negligence case. Unfortunately, it was not enough as last month the Guilford County Superior Court dismissed the lawsuit we brought against the City of High Point on behalf of the estate of Mr. Hayes.
Why would a case be dismissed if there is evidence of negligence? Our common sense tells us that someone should be held responsible, or in legal terms, liable, for the accident. I believe that people have an innate sense of justice; however, from time to time there are cases like this where the "letter of the law" does not line up with what we consider to be right. Although I was sorely disappointed with the outcome of this case, I was not surprised. Earlier this year, the North Carolina Supreme Court denied a rehearing of a similar drowning case in Pasquotank County, essentially setting a precedent that a government entity in North Carolina cannot be held liable for performing governmental functions. While one does not generally consider the running of a swimming pool to be a governmental function, if the government provides a service that no one else will that benefits its citizens, the function may be considered governmental in nature.
This governmental or "sovereign" immunity was applicable in our case against the city of High Point. Basically, they could not be held liable – even though there was evidence of negligence – simply because the pool is run by the city for the benefit of the community. If the pool in question were on private property, the outcome would have been very different. Every case is unique, and the same immunity applied in this instance may not always apply when an injury or death occurs on government property. You should always consult an attorney if there is any question of liability or negligence surrounding an accident.
The important takeaway from this case is that you have to be vigilant regarding your safety and the safety of your family. If you spend time at a pool this summer - whether public or private - do not take your safety for granted and do not rely on others to monitor your children. It's never a good idea to go swimming alone, no matter your age or swimming ability, and you should avoid swimming in overcrowded areas or where visibility is reduced.
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Karonnie Truzy is a litigation attorney at Crumley Roberts and represented the estate of Anthony Lee Hayes in the referenced case against the city of High Point. He is a seasoned litigator and was recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as a "Top 40 Under 40" lawyer.Free Initial Consultation