Summer couldn't come fast enough for Boston-area families in 2013. Three months removed from the Marathon bombings, people were eager to distance themselves from the assault on their city. The Browns were no different.
In mid-July, Jeff Brown, his wife, Carolynne, and their 6-year-old son, Grant, came to North Carolina to visit Carolynne's parents at their home in Governors Club, Chapel Hill's posh 1,600-acre gated golf community just over the Chatham County border, known in tabloids as the place where John Edwards' pregnant girlfriend, Rielle Hunter, holed up before the 2008 presidential election.
Jeff Brown, a Harvard psychologist and author who serves on Runner's World magazine's scientific advisory board, especially needed the escape. He had been in Medical Tent A, 100 yards from the finish line, when the backpack bomb went off.
Jeff's son had inherited his father's love for running, doing his first 5K at age 5. He was an active, energetic boy, and the Governors Club's golf and tennis day camp seemed to suit him well.
On the first day of camp, July 22, 2013, Carolynne Brown checked Grant in at the registration table. She advised counselors that the boy's energy belied the fact that he had not yet learned to swim, according to court records.
But records also indicate that warning never made its way to the lifeguard on duty, because—as a counselor later said under oath—there was no policy on what counselors should do with such information.
Had word reached the lifeguard, the day might have turned out much differently.
Sometime during a pool relay race, two swimmers found Grant unresponsive at the bottom of the club pool. Carolynne, who had been exercising in the nearby wellness center, was called to the pool and found Grant being unsuccessfully resuscitated. He died the next day.
In a deposition, the lifeguard said that had she known he could not swim, she would have made sure Grant stayed in the shallow end. Instead, surveillance video showed the 47-inch-tall boy struggling for a minute, then going under in 55-inch-deep water, where he remained for three minutes before the attempted rescue.
In the two years since, few details on the incident have been made public. News coverage at the time was limited to two short blurbs on local TV news websites. WRAL reported on the boy's critical-condition status but never followed with news of his death. WTVD reported the boy's death four days later, noting only that the incident occurred "at a pool," with no mention of Governors Club.
What's known comes only from court documents included in a civil suit the family settled with Governors Club this past weekend for an undisclosed amount. In that lawsuit, the Brown family claimed that club management was negligent and failed to warn them of "the dangerous condition and inadequate supervision occurring at the summer camp."
Jury selection was set to begin Tuesday.
Last Thursday, Judge Paul C. Ridgeway convened a hearing at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Hillsborough. There, Governors Club sought to dismiss two of the three counts in the case.
Governors Club attorney Dexter "Chip" Campbell began by arguing, "This is a tragic case. But it's not a punitive case."(The judge apparently agreed. Campbell says that before the case was settled, Ridgeway dismissed the claim for punitive damages.)
Campbell contended that the club had no pattern of neglect, despite a 2008 Governors Club committee report citing "some safety concerns about the pool." (Those concerns, he said, had to do with children running around the pool.) He then argued that because Carolynne Brown wasn't there when her son's body was pulled from the pool, the club shouldn't be held responsible for her emotional distress.
(In a eight-page, single-spaced personal statement, Carolynne told an agonizing tale of watching her son's vital signs deteriorate to the point of brain death. At 10:45 p.m. on July 23, 2013, Grant took his last breath in Carolynne's arms.)
Only one lifeguard was on duty during the incident: a 22-year-old collegiate swimmer with lifeguard and swim-instructor certifications. Even with a surveillance video, witnesses and video experts could only estimate the number of bathers at somewhere between 30 and 60. While requirements vary, the American Lifeguard Association and the American Red Cross recommend two lifeguards at any site, not just for diverse vantage points and periodic rotation but also for handling injuries requiring a backboard. At minimum, the ALA recommends another lifeguard for each 25 swimmers.
The camp's three counselors—all schoolteachers—were also present, and one had been a Governors Club lifeguard the previous summer.
The Brown family argued that wasn't good enough. With 32 campers in addition to the club's members, "there were too many for one lifeguard under any national standard," attorney Alan Cantor told the court, adding that the counselors shouldn't count.
Cantor charged Governors Club with budget-driven corporate indifference in not hiring additional lifeguards.
Depositions released after the settlement indicate that the aquatics director repeatedly asked for budget increases, in part because the one lifeguard was also required clean the pool, pick up trash and towels, and "mostly make the guests happy."
In her deposition, the lone lifeguard voiced concerns that her position and lack of an elevated chair left her with an awkward, blocked view of the deepest part of the pool.
Cantor also argued the accident was foreseeable. Staff members and two aquatics experts testified that the club had no drowning prevention or emergency management protocols and training.
In addition, Cantor refuted Campbell's claim about Carolynne's emotional distress. Not only did she see the majority of the activity around her blue, unconscious son, he said, but she also witnessed the lifeguard laboring alone for 12–14 minutes before EMTs arrived. (No other Governors Club staff member at the pool or wellness center was CPR-certified.) The tennis director, certified in the use of an automated external defibrillator, decided not to use it because he mistakenly believed it shouldn't be employed to help a drowning victim.
At the hearing, which ran less than 90 minutes, Campbell argued that the club was not negligent because it met the standards for a community pool.
He also argued that, given the way the pool was permitted, Governors Club didn't legally need a lifeguard in the first place; rather, that was a courtesy to community members. Moreover, he noted that Governors Club is not a North Carolina-certified child care facility and is therefore exempt from water-safety requirements.
Attorneys for the Browns declined to comment for this story. Campbell told the INDY Tuesday that, on behalf of Governors Club, "Our hearts remain with the family."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A tragedy of errors"