Deep Impact: Back Yard Danger

Victim Profile: Young, Athletic, Male

With summer almost here, millions of Americans are spending time around the back yard pool. But before you take the plunge, beware: It can have dangerous consequences. in a story that first aired in 1999, 60 Minutes II Correspondent Dan Rather investigates.
No matter how safe you think a pool may be, no matter how experienced the swimmer, a dive into a backyard pool can have a severe impact.

There are 7 million back yard pools in the United States. Many, the smallest that allow diving boards, are called hopper bottoms. They are deepest under the board and then rise to the shallow end, a transition wall where divers can hit their heads.

About a decade ago, David Clark dove into a pool in Louisiana and broke his neck. He survived and is now a lawyer, a quadriplegic and an authority on swimming pool risks.

"When you think of a diving accident, you think of someone diving into a river where they can't see the bottom, or maybe diving into the shallow end of a swimming pool," says Clark. "But it really came as a surprise to me that there are people diving from diving boards which you would presume are safe who end up hitting the bottom and becoming paralyzed."

Clark fit the profile for divers at risk: a young, tall, strong male who is unfamiliar with the pool. Tom Klebens fit the profile. He was even a decathlete at Penn State. He too dove into a back yard pool, broke his neck, and ended up a quadriplegic.

Shawn Meneely is another of the dozens of young men similarly injured. Meneely was an active athlete in Kennewick, Wash. Now he can only watch. His younger brother Brian is the high-school basketball team's high scorer. Now Meneely lives through his brother, and wishes he could play again.

Everyone has sympathy for Meneely and other young men whose necks, and futures, end up crippled after they dove off boards into back yard pools. But are these accidents truly unavoidable and unpredictable? Or are they foreseeable and avoidable?

Many of these injuries are the fault not of bad dives but of bad design, according to Seattle lawyers Jan Peterson and Fred Zeder. They point to evidence that they say shows pools built to industry standards for depth, length and width, but which they say nevertheless causes the water to be too shallow.

"The industry defense, and this is true in a lot of industries, is for the manufacturer to say, 'Gee, we were just following the standards,'" says Peterson. "So that the real evil behind this tragedy...are the standards. We looked at the standards. The standards are not safe. Who makes the standards? The National Spa and Pool Institute makes the standards." The National Spa and Pool Institute, or NSPI, is the pool industry's trade group.

Lawyers for many injured divers have concentrated on pool manufacturers and dealers and said that their pools were dangerously built. Both Clark and Klebens got millions after filing lawsuits. But Meeely, on the advice of his lawyers Peterson and Zeder, focused on the NSPI and its standards. During that trial, which took place in 1998, the standards themselves were on trial.

Zeder says that the NSPI's own research shows that these standards were unsafe. The NSPI has known this since 1974, he says. "We have absolute, irrefutable proof that they knew."

The NSPI defends its standards. "Since the standards been developed back in 1961 there's been many changes in the standards throughout time," says Bernice Crenshaw, NSPI's manager of standards. "And we are constantly making changes to try and prevent accidents and to consider the consumers. And I think everyone feels that our standard is a safe standard."

But not everyone agrees. In the early '90s, John Wingfield, who coaches U.S. Olympic hopefuls, did a study for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, videotaping exactly what happens when young people dive. He did similar tests as a paid expert witness for Meneely, showing what allegedly could happen when divers imitating Meneely dove into a pool with the same dimensions drawn in.

According to Wingfield, the pool was not safe for diving; divers could hit the transition slope at a speed high enough to cause catastrophic head and spinal injuries. Says Wingfield: "I would not dive into a backyard pool even from the side of the pool. I would not take that risk."

The Red Cross prefers a depth under the board of 11.5 feet, and 16.5 feet from the tip of the board to the up slope. The YMCA has similar guidelines. Both groups advise homeowners not to allow diving, or to remove the boards, if their pool is less than this depth. The current NSPI minimum depth is 7.5 feet, with 7 feet from the tip of the board to the up slope.

Why hasn't the NSPI adopted standards at least similar to the YMCA and the Red Cross? Crenshaw says that those standards are for public pools, while its standards are for residential pools. "Our standard is safe," she says. "If properly used."

By proper use, she means that the diver must "steer up." Steering up is a diving technique to avoid injury. Critics allege that it's also a tactic to suggest injuries are caused not by bad pools but bad dives. Wingfield says that while the NSPI has helped educate the public on proper diving, it is unrealistic to expect that everyone will dive with perfect form. "If it was easy to teach everybody to dive that well, everybody would be Greg Louganis and getting 10s," he says.

Wingfield believes that cost is probably the main reason that pools have not been redesigned.

Over the past three decades, the NSPI has made several changes. The problem, according to Meneely's lawyers: the changes were not enough.

But the NSPI says that the pool where Meneely dove didn't even meet its standards. Crenshaw says that the pool was wrongly built, making the transition wall too steep and too close, and therefore it shuld not have had a diving board.

"Then the pool was not built in accordance to any NSPI standard published during that time," says Crenshaw. "And if someone just had taken the time to measure the pool, they would have known that that pool did not need a diving board, and it should have been removed."

"That's their defense, is that these pools that accidents happen in don't meet their standard, and it's almost identical," says Peterson in response.

The jury in Shawn Meneely's case apparently didn't agree with Crenshaw, and returned a verdict against the NSPI of $6.6 million. Says Crenshaw: "It just doesn't seem fair, because I don't see how it could possibly be our fault if our standards were not involved or consulted."

As for Meneely, he cannot walk. But he believes he's already covered a lot of ground: "If I can stop people from ending up being quadriplegic like myself, from a diving accident like this, then that's what my goal is."

2001 Update

Since this story first aired two summers ago, Shawn Meneeley has graduated from college and now works in Seattle. As for his case against NSPI, after losing a lengthy appeal the group finally paid Meneeley the full ammount of the virdict plus interest, $8.1 million. NSPI says that since it last revised the standards in 1995, no accident has occurred in pools that are in compliance.

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