We recently corresponded with water safety expert Shawn DeRosa, J.D., of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting about his work with injury attorneys and their clients in the area of water safety. Shawn is one of the leading experts in aquatic risk management in the nation, having spent nearly nine years working at The Pennsylvania State University, seven years as the Director of Aquatics and Safety Officer for Intercollegiate Athletics/Associate Director of Campus Recreation, Aquatics and Safety and then nearly two years as the Senior Associate Director of Campus Recreation for Business and Administrative Services.

What is a water safety expert and how did you get involved in the profession?

A water safety expert is someone who uses their special knowledge, training and experience related to recreational water venues and activities to help prevent both fatal and nonfatal drownings as well as injuries that may occur in, on and around the water.

Many people are unaware that in the United States drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for children ages 1 to 14 years. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more children ages 1-4 die from drowning than from any other cause of death except birth defects. An average of 10 people die each day in the U.S. from unintentional drowning; two of these are children under the age of fourteen. For every one child that dies from drowning, another five receive emergency department treatment for nonfatal drowning events. Many of these suffer significant trauma including brain damage that may result in learning disabilities and memory loss. Some may have permanent loss of basic cerebral function and may remain in a permanent vegetative state.

Inspired to reduce the drowning rate and prevent these types of injuries, many water safety experts begin their careers as teenagers working as lifeguards at pools and beaches. This is how I first became involved in aquatics in the 1980s. Like other experts in the field, I  became a Water Safety Instructor so that I could teach others not only to swim but to also be safe whenever participating in aquatic recreational activities including at backyard pools. I also became certified as a Lifeguarding Instructor in order to train lifeguards in the lifesaving skills I had learned. Eventually, I became an Instructor Trainer so that I could help train new water safety and lifeguarding instructors. Following law school, I combined my knowledge of the law with my passion for aquatics and accepted a position with the Massachusetts State Park system. As the Waterfront Program Coordinator, I was responsible for developing policies and procedures for the use of state-operated pools and beaches.

While not all water safety experts have a law degree, what we do seem to share in common is that we are passionate drowning prevention advocates who believe that with education, training, proper barriers, equipment, and close supervision, accidental drowning deaths are preventable.

For what types of cases do attorneys seek your services on behalf of their clients?

Attorneys engage water safety experts for cases involving injury or death occurring at aquatic environments including residential pools, hotel pools, HOA pools, public pools, hot tubs, waterparks, and beaches.

Injuries can occur with a variety of activities including while swimming, soaking, sliding, boating, fishing, ice skating or simply relaxing near the water. Most aquatic injury cases allege negligence and/or premises liability. Where lifeguards are present, the failure to supervise is a common allegation.

Not every case involves a fatal or nonfatal drowning. All too often spinal injuries occur after someone dives headfirst into shallow water. Slips and falls while entering or exiting a pool are common and may be attributable to defects in construction materials, poor facility maintenance, or lack of care on behalf of the injured party themselves. Water safety experts may also be asked to assist in cases of suspected transmission of recreational water illnesses at the pool or waterpark, chemical exposures at swimming pools, or cases involving injuries on waterslides. A water safety expert may also be engaged to render opinions on the standards for the recruitment, hiring, and training of lifeguards, which may be called into question in cases involving negligent hiring, negligent retention, or even cases of sexual assault occurring at an aquatic venue.

What is the typical process of the work you perform for injury attorneys?

It is important that a water safety expert follow a standard methodology that other experts normally follow in similar cases before arriving at any opinion. It is equally important that water safety experts apply their specialized knowledge, skills, education, and experience to the facts in evidence in order to be of assistance to the trier of fact.

If engaged early enough in the litigation, I will help orient the attorney to the applicable standard of care and the type of information that would be helpful to me in analyzing the case. These discussions can help guide discovery requests and even the line of questioning during depositions. At times, this consultation can also cause the attorney to amend the original complaint such as by including new defendants or considering additional theories of the case.

Once discovery is underway, I will review facts from discovery documents, including deposition testimony, video evidence, personnel records, incident reports, chemical logs, maintenance records, and training records. I will conduct a site inspection to examine the location of and/or equipment involved in the incident, provided such is helpful in understanding the evidence. I consider the conduct of the injured party preceding the incident and the steps undertaken by the defendant to help prevent injury, including the posting of any warning signs. I research applicable codes and standards, including state and local code requirements, and review any research studies that may be relevant to my analysis. I consider and apply the facts developed in discovery to applicable research, codes, standards, and industry best practices. In most cases, I will write a report or prepare an expert designation indicating my findings and the opinions I expect to testify to at deposition or trial. If other experts are involved in the matter, I will often review their opinions and may prepare a rebuttal report highlighting any errors in their analysis that may affect their opinion.

Do you have any advice for people who have been injured or their families as a result of an aquatic accident?

Unfortunately, when aquatic accidents occur they often leave family members devastated by the loss of a loved one. In speaking with families that have lost a child to drowning, I have found that they all wish this would never happen to another family. Many become water safety and drowning prevention advocates, some starting nonprofit foundations in the name of the family member who died by drowning. If drowning has affected your family, I would encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional to assist you and your family in adjusting to the loss. Seek out support groups of families who have gone through similar losses. Two such groups to consider are Families United to Prevent Drowning and the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. Become involved as a drowning prevention advocate within your own community and help educate others about water safety. Your efforts may save a life.

What do you enjoy most about your career as a water safety expert?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled the world speaking about water safety and training swimming pool operators. I’ve met people from all walks of life and continue to work to help make swimming areas as safe as possible. But what I enjoy most about my career as a water safety expert is knowing that my efforts matter, that they help save lives.

Can you give us an example of your most satisfying career moment?

One summer season while working as a lifeguard while still in college, the mother of a young child in one of my swimming lessons came up to me with a cake that simply said, “thank you.” In the moment, I thought this was an expression of thanks that was very common at the pool; parents would often bring cookies, cupcakes, and other snacks to the lifeguards after each session of swimming lessons had ended. But this time it was different. The mom immediately broke down in tears and simply said, “thank you for saving my child’s life.” As it turns out, the young child had fallen into their backyard pool unbeknownst to anyone. The child was able to swim to the surface, roll over, move to a wall and then climb out on his own. All of these were skills we taught and practiced in swimming lessons. For that mom and that child, I was able to make a difference.

Pro Tip:   Personal injury cases that involve significant injuries sometimes require the assistance of an aquatics risk management expert service who can help in a variety of accident cases. Should you have any questions about your Connecticut accident case, please contact us.