Taylor v. Sta-Rite Indus., LLC, Minn., Hennepin Co. Dist., No. 27-CV-07-23405, Sept. 3, 2008.
Adults try to teach their children about courage and strength and the virtue of protecting others. But sometimes, it is the children who teach adults how to be courageous and selfless in the face of pain. After being severely injured by a pool drain, 6-year-old Abigail Taylor helped to illuminate the dangers of uncovered drains before she died from related complications. Her parents, with the aid of counsel, took up the fight against the Minneapolis golf club that knew its pool drain was deadly but did nothing to correct it. In the process, they helped change pool safety laws.
In June 2007, Abigail, who was on the golf club’s swim team, went with her family to the club’s pool. Earlier in the day, a little boy she was playing with stepped on a rusty pool drain screw at the bottom of the 18-inch-deep “kiddie” pool and cut his foot. Abigail’s mother took the screw to a lifeguard and explained that the kids were getting hurt. Another parent tried unsuccessfully to resecure the missing drain cover. The lifeguards did not take any action, let alone close the pool immediately as required by state law.
While playing later, Abigail fell, landing on her bottom on top of the open drain. The drain’s suction outlet tore her anus and rectum and pulled out her small intestine through the hole, eviscerating her. Abigail was able to stand up and walk out of the kiddie pool before falling to the ground, but no one knew what her injuries were. It was not until doctors operated on her that they discovered she was missing her free-floating bowel and small intestine. They repaired her anus and fitted her with a colostomy bag and a feeding tube that was threaded through her heart. For a while, it looked like Abigail might recover.
After Abigail was injured, her parents retained AAJ members Robert Bennett and Andrew Noel, both of Minneapolis, along with their former partner, Eric Hageman. The Taylors, individually and on their daughter’s behalf, sued the golf club and the manufacturer of the drain cover. Suit against the golf club alleged negligent operation of the pool; improper installation, maintenance, and use of the drain; failure to correct a known danger; and failure to adequately train the lifeguards, among other claims. The plaintiffs alleged that the manufacturer, Sta-Rite Industries, LLC, knew its drain system was dangerous and defectively designed because there had been several other incidents, but failed to design a safer alternative or adequately warn purchasers that the drain cover and frame needed to be maintained.
Just out of surgery, Abigail wanted to tell her story so that her plight could help other children. “Abbey wanted this not to happen to anyone else,” says Bennett. “She was a marvelous and selfless person.”
Sadly, several months after the incident, her liver stopped functioning properly, and she required liver, small bowel, and pancreas transplants. After the procedures, Abigail suffered complications and developed post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, a precursor to lymphoma that is treated through chemotherapy. The treatment did not work, and Abigail died almost nine months after she fell on the drain. She is survived by her parents and three sisters. Her medical and burial expenses were more than $2.8 million.
During this time, the Taylors learned through discovery that there was much more to the golf club’s negligence than they had at first realized. “It was deeply apparent that the golf club was manifestly negligent in so many ways,” Bennett says. The club’s certified pool operator knew that when a pool drain is replaced, both the frame that surrounds the hole and the drain cover must be replaced. For several years, however, he fixed the drain by simply putting a new cover over the old frame—even though a new frame comes in the kit with the cover—and using cheap screws in the holes. He continued this practice even after it became apparent that the holes in the frame were cracking and loosening the cover. Rather than install a new frame and use stainless steel screws, which do not corrode like the cheaper ones, he placed plastic anchors over the screws so that they would stay in the misshapen holes.
Horribly, the Taylors learned that Abigail’s injuries could have been prevented even eight days before her catastrophic injury. That is when the pool operator held a meeting with the club’s managers, including the general manager and the pool director—who had no experience as a lifeguard and was hired after applying for a bartender position—in which he told them that loose or missing drain covers could cause disembowelment or death. Unfortunately, none of them corrected the situation in the kiddie pool, and the pool director did not tell the lifeguards of the possible dangers and the appropriate response to the missing cover.
While the case was ongoing, the Taylors also began lobbying lawmakers to pass laws to protect pool guests from harm. In May 2008, the Minnesota legislature unanimously passed the Abigail Taylor Pool Safety Act, Minn. Stat. Ann. § 144.1222, requiring pool operators to, among other things, properly install and maintain pool drains and perform daily inspections of all drains. Congress passed a similar act, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 8001 et seq., which took effect in August. Bennett says the act had been going nowhere but was revived after a letter from Abigail’s father was read on the Senate floor.
Without admitting liability, Sta-Rite agreed to a confidential monetary settlement in May and voluntarily made a $2 million contribution to Abbey’s Hope, a foundation created by the Taylors to promote both pool safety and organ transplants. The company also agreed to take steps to redesign its drain cover assembly and make improvements to the warnings on the present product. Then, in September, the golf club publicly admitted liability, fired the club manager and pool operator, and settled the case for $8 million.
Noel says Abigail’s case has far-reaching import. “The results in this case prove that the death of a child is not of minor significance in our civil justice system.” Bennett agrees. “This case actually affected change and held people responsible,” he says.
Documents in this case are available through the Court Documents section in the back of this issue, courtesy of the plaintiffs’ counsel. A video created by counsel in preparation for trial, including portions of employee depositions and pictures of the drain, is available at http://www.flynngaskins.com/.
Comment: For other cases alleging design defect and failure to warn claims against Sta-Rite involving its pool pumps and drain covers, see Peterson v. Sta-Rite Indus., Inc., 46 ATLA L. Rep. 317 (Nov. 2003), and Lakey v. Sta-Rite Indus., Inc., 40 ATLA L. Rep. 269 (Sept. 1997).
Courtney L. Davenport, Associate Editor