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Pool Group Sued Over Standards

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    Pool Group Sued Over Standards

    Pool Group Sued Over Standards
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    By Kenneth Bredemeier
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, September 4, 2002; Page E01

    The National Spa and Pool Institute, an Alexandria trade group for pool contractors, has landed in hot water over its decades-old practice of setting voluntary pool safety standards for its members.

    Four plaintiffs who were injured in pool accidents are seeking $71 million in damages from the NSPI, arguing that its standards aren't strict enough. Last week, the institute filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in part to avoid being wiped out if it loses those court fights.

    The 5,200-member trade group was hit with an $8.8 million judgment in a similar case four years ago. Not wanting a repeat, it filed for bankruptcy to halt the litigation, said Stephen K. Gallagher, an Alexandria attorney for the NSPI.

    "These lawsuits are essentially due to an allegation that our standards were somehow the cause of those accidents," Gallagher said. "We deny those claims. We hope to resolve those lawsuits without litigation. But even a lawsuit that's frivolous has its costs. This [bankruptcy] gives us a little breathing room."

    The case the pool group lost in 1998 to Shawn Meneely, a 6-foot-4, 16-year-old Washington state resident who was left a quadriplegic after slamming into the up-sloping bottom of a residential pool in 1991, has worried the many trade groups that set voluntary standards for the making and use of their members' products.

    Washington area trade associations, many of which set standards for their members, are watching the NSPI situation closely, fearing they could face similar problems. Most of the organizations promulgate standards both to ward off state or federal regulation as well as to encourage workplace and consumer safety and compatibility for different kinds of products or equipment.

    In the Meneely case, the NSPI denied having anything to do with the youth's injuries, even indirectly. The trade group contended that the pool Meneely dived into was not built to the voluntary standards it set for contractors for the depth in the deep end of residential pools, which is usually 8 to 8 1/2 feet depending on various factors, and that the pool should not have had a diving board. The depth of the pool was inches shy of the NSPI standard.

    Washington state courts upheld an $11 million judgment against the trade group and other defendants, ordering the NSPI to pay $6.6 million of that, a judgment that eventually amounted to $8.8 million including interest. The trade group filed for bankruptcy protection in 1998 after the Meneely judgment, eventually paid the damages and emerged from bankruptcy in March 2000, only to be faced with new suits in Texas, New Jersey, Missouri and Toronto.

    Stacy Leistner, a spokesman for the American National Standards Institute here, which has accredited 280 professional societies and trade groups such as the NSPI to set product standards for their organizations, said the Meneely case "has raised a lot of concerns, pervasive concern among organizations that put their name on voluntary standards as well as the individuals who serve on the standards-writing committees."

    "These are groups that work for the public good" but are now fearful of being sued, Leistner said.

    John J. Cergol Jr., NSPI's chief staff executive, said the group "has never had a catastrophic accident in a pool that was built to NSPI standards," which were written 30 years ago. He said the trade group had successfully defended more than two dozen damage cases against it, losing only the Meneely suit. "Yet because we set standards, we've been brought into these cases.

    "We believe we'll prevail in defending these suits," Cergol said. He said they were scheduled to go to trial later this year and in 2003. Gallagher added that the cases will go to trial only if U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert G. Mayer in Alexandria orders them to proceed.

    Cergol said, however, that the lawsuits are not the only reason the NSPI filed for bankruptcy protection. He said Roger Galvin, the group's former chief executive, has filed for arbitration of his claims that he is owed more than $3 million in back wages and expense account reimbursements.

    Overall, Cergol said the group has $10 million to $20 million in assets. He said the group will continue to operate during the bankruptcy proceeding.

    © 2002 The Washington Post Company

    Quad Wall

    It's about time . The NSPI has known about these design problems for decades.
    It's criminal.

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