Defense granted summary judgment in swimming pool drowning death case

By Jon Campisi | Jan 30, 2013

A federal judge has granted summary judgment to a corporation that operates a

Lancaster, Pa.-based apartment complex that was being sued by the mother of a young boy who drowned in a swimming pool at the residential facility.

In February 2011, New York resident Korrien Marie Castro filed a wrongful death complaint against Memphis-based CLK Multifamily Management LLC over claims that the defendant’s negligence led to the death of her son, Jahli Clemens, at the Sweetbriar Apartment Park in Lancaster back on July 11, 2010.

Clemens would have turned three-years-old a month after his death, which occurred after he drowned in the Sweetbriar swimming pool.

The boy, who resided in New York with his mother, was visiting his cousin at the time who was a resident of the Sweetbriar apartment complex, the record shows.

Castro’s lawsuit alleged that her son’s drowning death occurred because of the negligent acts on the part of the defendant and due to the company’s failure to properly maintain, and have proper control and supervision over, the Sweetbriar swimming recreational area.

Specifically, the plaintiff faulted the defendant for not having lifeguards at the swimming pool and for not having proper locks installed at the entrance gate to the pool area.

Castro claimed that her son, who was “fearful of the swimming pool,” accidentally wandered into the pool area when he was suddenly pushed into the water by an unsupervised child or group of children who had been violating pool rules at the time.

The defendant soon filed for summary judgment, in which it raised two legal issues: whether the plaintiff had established a cause of negligence against the defendant, and whether the court should dismiss the plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.

In her Jan. 24 memorandum and order, U.S. District Judge Mary A. McLaughlin, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote that Castro has failed to meet the four-prong test for a successful negligence claim.

First, the judge wrote that Sweetbriar would not have been required to have a lifeguard on the premises because it falls under an exception to the Pennsylvania Swimming and Bathing Places Statute.

“Even viewing the factual dispute about overcrowding at the pool area in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the record does not show that the defendant provided ‘access to the general public’ so the argument that defendant was negligent for failing to provide a lifeguard in accordance with the statute fails,” McLaughlin wrote.

As for the plaintiff’s argument that the defendant was negligent because of pool overcrowding, the judge determined that Castro’s negligence theory falls short with respect to the causal connection between that breach of duty and the resulting injury.

“The plaintiff is not able to establish from the record that Jahli was indeed bumped or pushed into the pool, let alone by a child who was in the pool area and unsupervised due to the overcrowding problem,” McLaughlin wrote. “The plaintiff’s own briefing and expert report both acknowledge the possibility that Jahli entered or accidentally fell into the pool on his own.”

Addressing Castro’s defective gate lock negligence theory, the judge wrote that there is no evidence in the record to substantiate the theory that if the gates had been self-locking or if the defendant put a sign advising the plaintiff to look for her child in the pool first that the injury would have been avoided.

“It is undisputed that the plaintiff took her eyes off Jahli, and some amount of time, which the plaintiff could not recall precisely, passed before he disappeared,” McLaughlin wrote. “The plaintiff has presented no medical evidence to support the theory that Jahli would have survived if Ms. Castro had initially searched in the pool for him after realizing he was missing.”

Lastly, as for Castro’s global negligence theory that the failure to close down the pool area led to her son’s drowning, McLaughlin wrote that the court need not reach those causality issues, because Castro cannot sustain the allegation that the defendant breached a duty by not shutting down the pool area in its entirety.

“The plaintiff has not cited, nor has the Court found in its independent review, any precedent establishing that the defendant breached a duty by not shutting down the pool area given the instant circumstances,” the judge wrote.

In granting summary judgment to the defendant, McLaughlin also dismissed Castro’s punitive damages as moot.

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