Family of 3-year-old who drowned at Ohio water park suing in federal court

Published: Saturday, November 14, 2009
By Sean Delaney, Press & Guide Newspapers

DEARBORN -- An Ohio water park that calls itself the nation's largest has been named in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by the family of a Dearborn toddler who drowned there in August.

The suit seeks at least $75,000 for medical and funeral bills paid by the boy's family and for mental anguish. It accuses Kalahari Resorts and its affiliated companies of negligence and poor planning.

"This is about accountability," said attorney Shereef Akeel, who is representing the family of the victim, 3-year-old Hassan Itani of Dearborn. Calls to the water park were not returned by the Press & Guide's deadline Friday.

"Kalahari touts itself as a safe park, yet a little boy drowned," Akeel said. "This is truly a devastating loss. It is an incident that should not have happened."

According to reports, Hassan drowned in 3 feet of water at the popular water park in Sandusky. The park, which bills itself as the largest in the world, has a 173,000-square-foot indoor water park and a 77,000-square foot outdoor water park.

The outdoor facility houses an 8,200 square foot pool commonly referred to as the "Shallow Lagoon," as well as what is commonly referred to as the "Kiddie Pool."

The Kiddie Pool is located adjacent to the Lagoon and includes "many attractive objects in a confined space for children to play in, which included, but were not limited to, sprinklers, large animal statutes, a jungle gym, tube slides and other aquatic equipment."

The pool does not, however, have enclosed fencing to prevent young children from walking to nearby pools.

The lawsuit alleges that the outdoor playground "created a hazardous condition for children who were unable to appreciate the risk or danger, by attracting them to deeper, dangerous and/or unsupervised areas of the Lagoon."

It goes on to state that on Aug. 2, Hassan's mother was watching the toddler and his 6-year-old brother play in the Kiddie Pool. While playing Hassan, "momentarily walked out of the view of his mother behind the large obstacles confined within the Kiddie Pool, such as the large animal statutes and tube slides, and left the Kiddie Pool, and walked into the adjacent Shallow Lagoon at the zero entry level."

The Lagoon, the lawsuit alleges, does not "maintain any barriers or safety lines separating the shallow and deeper areas of the Lagoon." It ranges in depth from "zero-entry" - meaning the water is at the same level as the pool deck - to about 4 feet.

The lawsuit alleges Hassan, who could not swim, was allowed to enter the pool to enter the pool "without a U.S. Coast Guard approved life vest, and within view of a stationed lifeguard."

Hassan began struggling and having difficulty in the water to keep afloat. The lawsuit claims "safety personnel did not notice or failed to recognize Hassan's plight" and the victim was rendered unconscious.

He was discovered floating face down in approximately 3 feet of water in the Shallow Lagoon and was allegedly foaming from his mouth when he was recovered. The boy's lips had also allegedly turned blue.

The lawsuit alleges that lifeguards and security personnel "failed to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)" after pulling the boy from the pool. Instead, rescue efforts were allegedly initiated by one of the resort's guests, who began administrating CPR while lifeguards and security personnel watched.

After nearly 10 minutes, Hassan was transported to Fireland Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

"This was devastating to the family," Akeel said. "They had just lost their 2-year-old daughter to cancer, and now they've lost their son."

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants "knew or should have known" that additional lifeguards were needed to monitor the Lagoon, as there were allegedly more than 50 people bathing in the pool when the incident took place.

Authorities said two lifeguards were on duty when Hassan wandered into the deeper end of the 8,200 square-foot pool.

State regulations require at least two lifeguards for a pool of that size, and a third lifeguard if more than 50 people are in it. When authorities re-turned to the pool Aug. 3, they found more than 50 bathers at the pool, with only two lifeguards.

Erie County inspectors recommended that the water park have more lifeguards on duty.
"When you pay a fee, you expect the facility will be safe," Akeel said. "But our investigation and the resort's own track record proves that it wasn't."

According to state records, the park had been cited at least five times since it opened in May 2005 - the most of any of the state's major water parks.

The latest and biggest fine came in May 2008, when Kalahari was cited with a proposed $59,000 fine for eight instances of water rides running without enough lifeguards or guards without proper certification. Kalahari attorneys negotiated a $29,000 settlement, according to state records.

Kalahari CEO Josef Haas told The Associated Press on Wednesday he had no knowledge of the recent lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Toledo. The park has 20 days to file a response.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.