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Lawsuit Over Contaminated Water Has Ripple Effect on Event Owners, Venue Operators

22 Aug, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Lawsuits alleging negligence on the part of sports venues are hardly news – although they’re certainly hotly contested when they arise. One such suit, however, has managers taking notice, particularly since the circumstances are, well, gruesome.

In the case of Daviess-Martin County Joint Parks & Recreation Department v. Estate of Abel, Waylon Abel died after being infected by a common water-borne organism, Naegleria fowleri (also known as the ‘brain-eating amoeba’), while swimming in a park lake in Indiana.

According to an article in Parks and Rec, NRPA’s Magazine, the victim’s estate claimed the parks department, along with the parks board, county and health department, were negligent in failing to reasonably address the threat posed to park visitors by harmful organisms in the park swimming lake. The suit was ultimately settled in favor of the parks district – but the ripple effect has brought continued concerns among open-water sports organizers and venue operators.

While deaths from exposure to the amoeba are rare (not only must the amoeba be present, but water must be forcibly pushed up an individual’s nostrils for it to manifest), it is not the first time we’ve seen them. In 2016, a teenager died when she contracted the amoeba after falling out of a raft at the U.S. Whitewater Center near Charlotte, North Carolina. Including the case in Indiana, nationwide, 138 people were stricken by the disease between 1962 and 2015, according to the CDC. As recently as 2017, multiple other occurrences had been reported.

According to CBS Newsthe amoeba is common in lakes and other kinds of warm, fresh water, yet it's very rare that it will make anyone sick, said Dr. Thomas Kerkering, chief of infectious diseases at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke, Virginia. In fact, in the 2016 case, other teenagers falling out of the same raft as the girl who died did not report any resulting health problems. The chance someone is infected seems to be just that – chance. But when the amoeba is present, and when a fatality occurs, it is justifiably a high-profile event.

Because the early symptoms are generally not likely to set off any warning bells– a headache, fever, nausea or vomiting are the most commonly reported – it is often mistaken for other problems including heat sickness. In later iterations of the illness, people might experience a stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, seizures and hallucinations, the CDC reports. After the start of those symptoms, victims die in less than a week.

Compounding the problem is that there is no vaccine against the pathogen. Sports event planners and venue operators for open-water events, or any events where a risk might be found are advised to work with independent professional testing companies that can examine water samples and provide alerts regarding any possible pathogens. Note that test results are not instantaneous, so planners should ascertain that tests are conducted far enough in advance to have results available, but close enough to the event to be able to have justifiable confidence in the safety of the water if tests come back clean. Even then, however, planners should urge that precautions be used:

  • Always assume that there is a low level of risk anytime there is an event involving open water (whether that is swimming, diving, sailing, waterskiing or anything else)

  • Athletes should be advised to hold their nose shut or use nose clips when going into the water, and to exhale forcefully through the nose if going into the water unexpectedly

  • Advising athletes to avoid digging in or stirring up sediment in potentially infectious bodies of water.

The question, of course, is whether as a result of these high-profile cases, getting approval to host an event in a body of water with a pre-existing contamination will be more difficult, and whether athletes (or in the case of youth events, their parents) will shy away from such venues rather than risk exposure.

Planners may also wish to consult with an event insurance company to plan for any additional coverage that may be necessary.

According to Sports Destination Management contributing writer Lorena Hatfield, marketing manager with K&K Insurance Groups, which provides coverage for sports events, planners should ascertain first, that the coverage needed is available. K&K, for example, she noted, “does not offer coverage for water parks, but we do have programs with water risks such as camps and campgrounds. K&K does offer coverage for this type of exposure under our transmissible pathogens coverage. If a claim were to be brought against an organization that had purchased this coverage, they would be insured. It’s important to know that this is not standard coverage offered in the general marketplace.”

But the deadly amoeba is not the only issue facing owners of water sports events, though it does have the highest profile. Last year, the chlorine-resistant superbug known as Cryptosporidium was  causing diarrhea, cramps, an upset stomach, vomiting and a low-grade fever among swimming pool users across the U.S. (Even worse news: crypto outbreaks increased twofold since 2016.) Also iIn 2017, the additional bloom of a dangerous bacteria in open water was reported in Massachusetts in an area earmarked for public swimming. The bacteria was capable of causing skin rashes, vomiting and even neurological problems and liver damage, according to an article in the Boston Herald. As recently as last week, a chlorinator malfunctioned in a Life Time Fitness outdoor swimming pool in Georgia, sending numerous youth swimmers to the hospital prior to a meet. And as recent events have proven, water doesn't even need to be contaminated to be dangerous; a beach on Cape Cod was closed last week after a New York man was bitten by a shark.

All problems present challenges with testing, and with insuring water safety, since in many cases, conditions can change quickly, depending upon equipment, temperature, precipitation, water currents, usage and other factors. Ultimately, it may be advisable for planners to consult with their organization’s legal counsel who can review whether adequate warning is being provided to athletes on registration materials and other information.

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