Personal Injury

Swimming Pool Safety and Liability

By Margaret Jasper, Attorney
Pools are a source of fun, but also of potential danger. Whether you're a property owner or you're thinking about making an injury claim after a pool-related accident, here's what you need to know about pool safety and liability.

Many of the hazards posed by swimming pools are well known, while some safety risks may not be so obvious. What can property owners do to keep swimmers safe from poolside accidents and injuries, while also protecting themselves from liability? And if you or a loved one has been harmed by unsafe conditions or inadequate supervision at a pool, what are your legal options? For the answers to these questions and more, read on.

Pool Safety Statistics and Laws

Federal safety statistics show that drowning is the fifth-leading cause of unintentional death, and young children are at particular risk of accidental drowning or non-fatal submersion injuries.

At the federal level, one of the most important laws related to pool safety is the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act, which sets minimum standards for drain covers and related equipment in many pools and spas, to prevent drain entrapment and similar accidents. This Act also lays out requirements for enclosure and other safety measures for certain kinds of pools.

A number of states have adopted similar laws that apply to public and residential pools, and many states have passed more broad-reaching statutes that may require child-resistant fencing, pool alarms, anti-entrapment devices, warning signs, and more. These laws vary by state and locality. For example, check out the California Department of Public Health's web page on California Swimming Pool Requirements.

Pool Owner Liability for Injuries to Guests

Though the specifics vary from state to state, a property owner has certain legal obligations when it comes to the condition of a pool or spa on their property, and the safety of swimmers who are foreseeable users of that pool or spa.

A property owner's most expansive legal duty extends to anyone who is allowed to enter the pool premises for social reasons, such as a hotel patron using the hotel pool or a party guest who swims in a pool at a private residence. Generally, property owners in these situations must make reasonable inspections of the pool and the surrounding area and warn invitees of dangers they are (or should be) aware of. There is typically a corresponding legal duty to fix any unsafe conditions within a reasonable amount of time.

On the other side of the coin, when can an injured person file a personal injury claim against a property owner after a pool-related accident?

Let's say the underwater light cover is broken in your neighbor's pool, and has been for over a month, but the neighbor doesn't warn you about it. You are swimming in the pool and you get a deep gash in your leg from the broken cover.

In that situation, your neighbor will likely be deemed negligent in connection with your injury, and will be on the hook for your medical bills, lost income, and other losses stemming from the accident. You could file a personal injury lawsuit against your neighbor, or at least make a third-party claim under his or her homeowners' insurance policy. Learn more about The Role of Insurance in Settling an Injury Claim.

One of the easiest ways to establish a property owner's negligence (and therefore their liability) when it comes to a pool injury is to show that a pool safety statute was violated in connection with the accident (such as the federal and state laws we discussed in the first section, above.)

Pool Owner Liability for Injuries to Trespassers

If someone is trespassing on property without permission to enter the pool premises -- let's say they jump the fence to swim without the homeowner's knowledge or consent -- there is likely a lower legal obligation.

As a general rule, you're not responsible for the safety of trespassers on your land, unless you know that people regularly come onto your property and use your pool, and you do nothing to stop them, and the pool is in an unreasonably safe condition. That's especially true in the case of trespassers who are children. A swimming pool is almost always deemed an “attractive nuisance,” and that means a property owner has a heightened obligation to keep the pool and surrounding premises reasonably safe even for children who do not have permission to be on the property.

Pool Fencing and Young Children. According to the CPSC, when it comes to very young children, inadequate fencing and lack of supervision are the primary causes of drowning and submersion accidents, particularly in residential pools. Seventy-five percent of children killed or injured in such accidents are between the ages of 1 and 3.

CPSC says the best way to reduce child drowning and submersion accidents in residential pools is to install and maintain proper barriers that prevent children from gaining access to the pool. Check out CPSC's Safety Barrier Guidelines for Residential Pools for more information.

Recreational Water Illness and Chemical Injuries

It's not only drowning and other submersion injuries that property owners and swimmers need to be mindful of. There are also health hazards associated with inadequately maintained swimming pools.

If the water is not treated properly, swimmers may contract a “recreational water illness” or RWI. An RWI is an illness that's spread by swallowing, breathing or being in contact with contaminated water in swimming pools and spas. An RWI can cause health problems like gastrointestinal distress, ear or eye infections, and respiratory illnesses.

Pool owners who don't make sure that proper chemical levels are maintained in their pool could find themselves facing an insurance claim or lawsuit over an RWI.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I have to take steps to keep would-be trespassers out of my yard if my pool is visible from the streets and sidewalks around my house?
  • Are there exceptions to compliance under the Virginia Graeme Baker law? Do pools have to post any notices showing compliance with the law?
  • How does someone prove how and where a recreational water illness was picked up?

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