A woman who suffered a spinal injury as a teen received a multi-million-dollar award in a case revisiting the decades-old debate about starting blocks and water depth.
It also serves as a wake-up call to those who own aging facilities, reminding them that grandfather clauses might not hold up in court.
In October, jurors held the University of Regina, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, negligent in a diving accident that rendered Miranda Biletski paraplegic. She was 16 at the time and an aspiring Olympic swimmer. She trained with the Regina Piranhas Swim Club, which rented the pool from the university. In 2005, Biletski was practicing her diving starts when she struck her head on the bottom of the pool, fracturing her C6 vertebrae.
Biletski alleged that the school was at fault, claiming there wasn’t enough water in the pool and that it didn't meet code.
Attempts to settle out of court failed, and Biletski became too consumed with a new passion -- wheelchair rugby -- to pursue damages through civil court until well into adulthood. (A Paralympian, Biletski was the first woman on Canada's wheechair rugby team during the 2016 Summer Olympics.)
The trial finally began in September. The jury heard testimonies about how shallow is too shallow.
The starting blocks stood 30 inches above the water at the pool’s shallow end. The university argued that, at 1.2 meters deep, or just under 4 feet, the pool met the standards of Swimming Canada – competitive swimming’s national governing body – at the time of its construction.
However, the university couldn't say definitively if the water level was adequate at the time of the accident.
“[Design] compliance was right at the bare minimum -- if it ever complied,” said attorney Alan McIntyre. "That means the pool has to be absolutely full.
"We never got a precise measurement from the university. ... Its recordkeeping and maintenance logs were, I think, substandard,” he added.
Plaintiffs also argued that Swimming Canada had updated its minimum depth requirements since the pool's 1960s construction. A 2002 rule mandated a depth of 1.35 meters. Alison Osinski, Ph.D, an expert witness retained by Biletski’s team, testified that the school was obligated to remove the blocks or position them at the deep end to meet the more current standard.
“My argument was just because the pool is old, that doesn’t make it safe,” said Osinski, owner of Aquatic Consulting Services, based in Southern California.
John Fletemeyer, an expert witness for the swim team, agrees.
“You had very simple solutions to solve the problem, and neither one of them were considered,” said Fletemeyer, Ph.D, executive director of the Aquatic Law & Safety Institute. “This puts owners of pools on notice that they need to be compliant with [current] standards.”
The two experts, however, disagreed on one critical point. In court, Osinski argued that the swim team is at least partially to blame for Biletski’s accident, saying coaches are responsible for measuring the water level before executing diving drills. Fletemeyer, testifying on behalf of the Piranhas Swim Club, said in no way should an organization renting the pool be held responsible for the water level or the way it was constructed.
“When I rent a car, I don’t check the tread on the tires, I don’t check the windshield wipers, and I don’t check the oil,” Fletemeyer said. “They were leasing this under the assumption that it was a safe, compliant pool … and they had every right to think that.”
Ultimately, the verdict placed the blame squarely on the university.
The case dredges up decades-old controversies about diving. In the 1980s and 90s, various industry organizations were at odds over how deep water should be for a safe dive. The arguments intensified as the number of injuries escalated.
The problem partly had to do with design. Architects commonly placed the diving board at the deep end and starting blocks at the shallow end.
Numerous studies were performed, and coaches went to great lengths to train athletes to dive safely into shallow water. Much of this was done in an effort to prevent pools from undergoing costly remodels, Osinski said.
Many pools are still configured this way. “And to this day, with the University of Regina, we’re still arguing about diving blocks," Osinski said.
This article previously was accompanied by a photo showing a particular manufacturer’s starting block. The image did not depict the site of the accident described here, and the equipment shown was not involved with this litigation. AI regrets the error.