Like most 2-year-olds, Loren Hinton loved to play hide-and-seek. On a warm spring day in May 2001, Loren ran around with her friends at her family's apartment community, while her father manned the grill. The little girl wandered into the community's pool area through a broken gate, took off her shoes, and slid down a kiddie slide into the pool's 6-foot-deep water. A neighbor rescued her, after finding her unconscious. The toddler survived the near-drowning but suffered irreversible brain damage.
It was an accident with both emotional and financial costs. Last year, a Florida jury awarded the Hinton family $100 million, finding the owner of the 26-unit apartment community negligent for not safeguarding the pool area and not repairing a gate that had been broken for months. (The company's attorney did not respond to a reporter's calls for comment.)
"Our child was able to get through that fence, and it nearly cost her her life," says Lorri Hinton, Loren's mother. Loren spent about a week on life support and six weeks in the hospital. "Her heart had stopped for 33 minutes," says Hinton. "It caused her to have severe brain damage. She's not the child she was before."
Tragically, these types of injuries happen more often than one might think. On average, 250 children under the age of 5 die annually as a result of pool drownings, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Among unintentional injuries, drowning is the second leading cause of death for children under age 5, after motor vehicle accidents. Given such statistics, apartment owners and managers can't afford to overlook the dangers pools can pose, particularly to their youngest residents.
Many of these heartbreaking incidents can be prevented with proper safety precautions. "Water safety is a big concern, and you can never take your focus off of it," says Lesa LaRocca, a regional director at Phoenix-based Trillium Residential LLC. "Kids love water; it looks so enticing. We have a responsibility as a management company to make sure that our facilities are working properly, especially our gates and fences."
But all too often, management is unaware of how to properly safeguard pools, says attorney Michael Haggard of Coral Gables, Fla.-based Haggard, Parks, Haggard & Bologna, who represented the Hintons in the case involving their daughter. "When I end up taking [apartment owners'] deposition or cross-examining them at trial, as much as they are negligent, they didn't want to be," the lawyer says. "They say, 'If I had just known what a self-latching gate was, I would have done that in a heartbeat.'"
To forestall such accidents at your properties, it pays to know the most common safety hazards at pools and how to reduce them. In many cases, the safer solution is easier than you might think–and could save you millions of dollars and countless regrets.