It's been big news in Dallas that a 4-year-old Garland girl, Mariah Anthony, drowned in a pool at the Meadow Creek apartment complex this past Sunday. This incident was different than most other pool drownings, because the media and emergency response personnel both noted how murky the water in the pool was.
One news outlet also has footage of the child's grandmother blaming the mother for what happened. Taken together the coverage is a bit of a jumbled mess, which is to be expected after a tragedy like this.
There's two ways to approach an incident like this. We can put ourselves in the role of jurors and have a mock trial in the court of public opinion, or we can look at the information that is publicly available and try to make the best sense of those facts, while we wait for the full picture to become clear. Given that no one, not even the media, seems to have an accurate account of what transpired leading up to the drowning, the only solid information we're left to discuss is the apartment's role in this incident.
What Mistakes Did Meadow Creek Apartments Staff Reportedly Make Leading up to the Drowning?
New reports indicate that the pool where Miss Anthony drowned had been closed as recently as a week before the drowning. It was closed because city inspectors discovered that the pool was cloudy and cloudy pool water poses dangers. As a condition to reopening the pool and to ensure the safety of those in the pool, the city ordered the complex staff to test the pool water every day, in order to ensure that the dangerous condition didn't recur.
Public comments indicate that on the day of the drowning, apartment staff didn't test the water in the pool, because the pool was already too crowded. Just so we're all on the same page, the complex was having problems keeping the pool in safe, working order, agreed to test it daily for signs of trouble, but decided not to because there were already too many people in the pool, the very people that all of these actions were designed to protect. Does that sound reckless to anyone else?
In the aftermath of the drowning, the city of Garland reportedly cited the apartment complex for failing to comply with the city's order to test the pool daily. Perhaps the most macabre information that has been reported is that it took emergency personal several dives to locate Ms. Anthony's body: The visibility in the water was that bad. That would indicate that we aren't talking about a pool that had a bit of a haze in the water, but something so cloudy that it was impossible to see down to the bottom.
How Is the Meadow Creek Apartment's Reported Behavior Careless?
Obviously, Garland city officials ordered the water to be tested every day to monitor a prior problem and the Meadow Creek staff didn't follow that ordered. Some people may see this as just another bureaucratic intrusion into the apartment complex's affairs, but ensuring that pool water isn't cloudy serves a very important safety function.
It may not be obvious, but it's a much safer proposition to swim in clear water than cloudy. When water is murky, it's much harder for others to notice when a swimmer is in distress. It also makes it more difficult to actually reach a distressed swimmer, because objects in the water are rarely stationary. So if a child goes into the water, someone sees it, and springs into action to attempt a rescue, in murky waters, it's quite likely that the child won't be where the rescuer thinks they should be. If the water is murky, figuring out where the child is becomes a matter of guesswork. That is why cloudy pools are a much bigger safety risk than people initially think.
While the pool was obviously not in the best of shape, there are other apartment staff decisions that deserve scrutiny. It's been widely reported that the pool wasn't tested on the day of the drowning because there were already too many people in the pool area. Even granting that it might not be possible to test the water with people in it, which doesn't really pass the smell test, the entire point of tests and maintaining a safe pool in the first place is to protect the people in it. Such an explanation would be akin to an airline trying to excuse not performing a pre-flight check of an airplane because it had a lot of passengers on it who were in a hurry.
Another aspect of this story, overlooked by the press in most pool drownings, is the reported number of people in and around the pool. In Texas, there is a very strict mathematical formula for determining the occupancy of a pool. However, it only applies to pools that are open to the public. Just like with murky water, it's far easier for a child or person in distress to get lost when there are too many people in and around a pool area.
I realize that apartments can't have someone on staff to constantly monitor how many people are around a pool at a given time, but most apartment pools don't even go to the trouble of placing a maximum occupancy sign for the pool area. This strikes me as a bit reckless, since it's well known that too many people in a pool can lead to injuries and deaths. The very fact Texas (and other states) regulate public pool occupancy illustrates just how obvious the hazard is.
In fairness, we're not sure whether there were too many people in the pool area to test the water to ensure their safety, or if there were just too many people in the pool area period. In the wake of this drowning, I don't see how those questions aren't of great importance. Regardless of any legal cases that may arise from incidents like these, if I owned an apartment that had a pool, simple respect for other people and a concern for their well-being would necessitate doing everything I could to make sure that the pool was as safe as it could possibly be. Given what's been reported so far about this incident, it doesn't appear that the apartment complex behaved in this way.
Understanding the Reason Behind the Law
The main reasons that we have law in the first place is so that everyone has a general idea of how to behave, a way to hold people accountable when careless behavior harms them, and forums to sort out the facts in an impartial manner. For property owners, like the owners of Meadow Creek apartment, all the law expects of them is to use, enjoy, or profit from their property in as safe a manner as reasonably possible. It's not a particularly high bar to clear in my opinion.
Everyone knows that having a pool on a property presents maintenance and safety challenges, but most apartment complexes in the DFW area have pools. They're part of an amenities arms race to lure potential renters to reside at a particular location. In short, it's a pretty straight line between building a pool and boosting the bottom line. It's not legalese to suggest that when someone gets the benefits of something, like increased revenue from having a pool, they also incur obligations, such as making sure the pool is in safe and working order.
The most important obligation is to ensure that people don't get hurt or lose their life. Regardless of the other circumstances surrounding the drowning of Mariah Anthony, it's very clear that the owners of Meadow Creek apartments did not live up to this obligation. The only questions left unanswered is, "Why?"