We know pools can be dangerous. You are likely cautious about a slip and fall, head injury, and of course drowning, because those are the obvious dangers with pools. However, the injuries five-year-old Valerie Lakey experienced at a neighborhood pool were so shocking, they warned a nation. An investigation by her personal injury lawyers resulted in North Carolina’s biggest jury award to compensate her for the pool accident.
The Unexpected Pool Accident
On June 24, 1993, David Lakey took his daughter, Valerie, to the Medfield Area Recreation Club in Cary, North Carolina. The Club’s pools were open to members of the neighborhood and were regulated by Wake County.
Valerie played in the children’s wading pool, but then got pinned on top of an open drain she sat on. Normally the drain had a cover, but it was removed because it was not fastened with screws. The suction was so strong that David and three other persons could not free her.
When someone finally turned off the pump to the pool, David was able to lift Valerie out. But his daughter suffered horrific injuries—the powerful suction disemboweled her. Thankfully, the emergency medical response saved her life.
Who Was At Fault?
It was impossible to determine who removed the cover from its place above the drain. However, screws did not secure the cover in place. Someone was at fault for failing to protect children from such a terrible pool accident. To find out who and make them pay for Valerie’s injuries, her parents hired personal injury lawyers.
The pools were operated by the Club and certified for safety by the county. By failing to secure the drain cover and inspect the pools, both settled with the Lakeys for $5.9 million. However, Valerie’s lawyers discovered the manufacturer of the drain cover, Sta-Rite, also produced drain covers in other suction accidents. Sta-Rite did not expressly warn of suction accidents on their product. Therefore, Valerie’s lawyers believed Sta-Rite was also liable under a product defect rule to warn of known dangers.
The Product Defect Trial
Manufacturers must clearly warn of hidden dangers to consumers. When they breach this duty, courts hold them strictly liable for the product’s injuries. That meant Valerie’s lawyers did not have to prove Sta-Rite acted negligently. Instead, they had to prove:
- Sta-Rite knew of the danger of disembowelment from an unprotected drain.
- The danger of disembowelment was not immediately apparent to consumers.
- Sta-Rite did not expressly warn of the danger of disembowelment on its product.
An investigation revealed that Sta-Rite knew of at least a dozen other cases where people were trapped or similarly injured on open pool drains. Sta-Rite’s drain covers came with instructions to secure them with screws. However, they lacked warnings of disembowelment injuries that could result if the covers were not secured.
At the close of the 1997 product defect trial, one of Valerie’s lawyers—future North Carolina Senator and United States presidential candidate John Edwards—gave an impassioned speech about the need for those warnings. The jury returned a verdict for Valerie and recommended $25 million in damages to pay for her medical expenses and discomfort.
Before the jury could recommend punitive damages (additional payments intended to punish Sta-Rite), the manufacturer offered to settle for $25 million. To avoid a costly appeal and secure compensation for Valerie, who needed 11 hours each day of intravenous feeding, the Lakeys accepted.
Lawyers Who Do What’s Right
Manufacturers that sell a dangerous product without sufficient warnings can do more harm than good. Holding them accountable can help prevent future accidents. Passionate legal representation do more than win fair compensation for you, it can also help your community. At Sam & Ash, LLP, we say you deserve What’s Right — and that includes a safer future. If a dangerous product causes your injury, call us at 1 (800) 304-2000. Let’s do What’s Right together.