Swimmers injured in pool poisoning sue Tulare hospital district

Two swimmers injured during an accidental poisoning at a gym owned by the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) are seeking compensation for the fallout they say they’ve suffered since the June 27 incident last year.

According to a 14-page filing in Tulare County Superior Court, Jose Josh Wee III and Ava Olsen have both suffered long-term health problems stemming from what the district reported as an unanticipated release of toxic gas following a repair of the swimming pool’s automated chemical treatment system at Evolutions Fitness and Wellness Center in Tulare. Evolutions is owned and operated by the TLHCD.

The plaintiffs, Wee and Olsen, were competitive swimmers training for their freshman seasons in college at the time of the incident. Both were reported as minors at the time the incident took place. They are represented by Hoope Law of Fresno, which filed the case on March 6.

A case management conference regarding the case is scheduled for July 8 before Judge Gary M. Johnson at the Tulare County Courthouse in Visalia.


Chlorine and Human Waste formed Toxic Reaction

According to a pair of analyses of the incident conducted on behalf of TLHCD, the toxin in the pool area was chloramine, a byproduct produced when chlorine used to sanitize pool water mixes with human waste already present. However, initial indications were muriatic acid may have been the cause. The confusion over what toxin had caused the poisoning continued for nine days until the district released the analysts’ reports.

This led victim Ava Olsen’s father Paul to say he suspected a conspiracy on the part of TLHCD to hide the cause of his daughter’s injuries. TLHCD CEO Randy Dodd later explained the delay was created by a sense of caution and the need for a complete investigation.

The delay, Paul Olsen said, made treating his daughter much more difficult.

“She was put on oxygen. She was given steroids,” he said of his daughter’s experience after the incident. “She couldn’t breathe. They gave her a steroid shot, I guess her throat was swollen.”

Ten days after the incident took place, Olsen said his daughter was still suffering painful symptoms of chloramine exposure and receiving ongoing breathing treatments. He described her lung capacity as about 90% of what it had been prior to the poisoning. He worried, he said, about her future as a collegiate swimmer.

“Is she going to be able to compete at the same level?” Olsen said. “Will she ever be the same?”

Ava Olsen and Wee, both recent graduates of Tulare Union High School, were training for their upcoming freshman year as collegiate competitive swimmers when the incident at Evolutions occurred. Olsen was preparing to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Wee was to join the aquatics team at Concordia University in Irvine. Both were minors at the time.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers did not respond to a request for comment on the case.


‘Pandemonium’ at Poolside as Swimmers Escaped

The lawsuit – which could broaden to include as-yet unnamed manufacturers, installers and maintenance workers who dealt with the allegedly faulty sanitization system as defendants – claims Olsen and Wee were choked by “an unknown chemical agent” in the pool area after completing sprint laps in the pool.

“Simultaneously, both plaintiffs began coughing and were unable to draw breath,” the suit claims. “Their throats constricted and were burning. Neither plaintiff knew what had happened or what was happening to them.”

Chaos broke out as it became clear to the people in the pool area something was wrong.

“Pandemonium ensued. Swimmers fled the pool and collapsed in or near the locker room,” the suit states. “Plaintiff Wee collapsed in the men’s locker room and had to be carried out of the building by a good Samaritan. Plaintiff Olson attempted to self-extricate herself from the building but collapsed into a chair near the front desk.”

A total of five swimmers were injured during the incident, according to reports from the Tulare Fire Department, which responded to the emergency.

TFD did not investigate the cause of the toxic gas release. However, a social media post from management at the gym called the incident “an apparent malfunction of a sensor that controls the automatic flow of chemicals to our swimming pool.”

TLHCD CEO Dodd would later describe the district’s view of the incident:

“We had a situation: The pool is down a couple of days, the water’s not being stirred up, the air’s not being moved, those chloramines drop down, sit on top of the pool, and then you introduce people, contaminants, other things that have a reaction with whatever the chemicals are, and this is conjecture, which is not a great place to be, but at that point whatever that level reached, it off-gassed,” Dodd said.

Dodd did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.


Victims’ Medical Bills Left Unpaid

Once the emergency situation at the pool was identified by staff, the gym was cleared and emergency response personnel were summoned. At the recommendation of a 911 dispatcher, those exposed to the unknown toxic gas were hosed down outside the facility to remove the contaminant.

According to the lawsuit, the exposure to cold water made breathing even more difficult for Olsen and Wee, as the pair continued to struggle for air. They experienced a burning sensation on their skin, eyes and in their respiratory systems, and were transported by ambulance to Adventist Health Tulare hospital. The hospital premises are owned by the TLHCD, but leased and operated by Adventist Health Central Valley.

Because officials at Evolutions and the TLHCD were unaware what toxin Wee and Olsen had been exposed to, their treatment was further complicated, the suit alleges.

Adding insult to injury, unnamed TLHCD representatives allegedly promised to pay the cost of victims’ medical treatment resulting from the injuries incurred during the incident, the lawsuit said. The plaintiffs’ lawyers say the district reneged on that promise.

“The bills were forwarded to (TLHCD’s) counsel, but went unpaid despite these promises,” the suit said. “(TLHCD) has not made good on their word, and some of plaintiffs’ bills have been sent to collections. (TLHCD) even refused to pay the ambulance bills.”

Both Wee and Olsen continue to experience shortness of breath and a lack of stamina. The pair have developed anxiety, inability to concentrate and depression as a result. Their attorneys believe the district should pay for their previous and ongoing medical expenses.

“The fear of not being able to take a breath remains with them,” the suit states.


Injured Swimmers Seek Damages for Negligence, Liability

The suit on Olsen and Wee’s behalf claims six causes for the legal action against the TLHCD, as well as the companies that designed, built and marketed the automated pool sanitation system, and the workers who installed and maintained the system for the district.

The suit’s main complaint is that the TLHCD failed to maintain a “sanitary, healthful and safe” public swimming pool, as required by the state’s Health and Safety Code. Further, the suit claims statements from the district about the incident make the negligence clear and obvious, though specific examples were not cited.

Negligence on the part of the hospital district was responsible, the suit alleges, not only for the injuries suffered during the incident but also for any possible future repercussions, including an early death. TLHCD administrators, the suit claimed, “acted with intent to injure, vex and annoy” Olsen and Wee.

Specifically, attorneys claim management at the district and at Evolutions failed to hire and retain qualified personnel to maintain their public pool, and failed to properly supervise those who did the job. The suit claims district administration were aware or should have been aware their employees were “unfit or incompetent.”

Additionally, the suit claims some responsibility for the toxic gas release is also due to product liability on the part of yet unnamed third-party co-defendants responsible for a malfunctioning switch plaintiffs’ attorneys apparently believe was defective and caused the incident.


Manufacturers also Responsible, Suit Alleges

A sweeping description of possible co-defendants includes the companies that “manufactured, designed, assembled, compounded, tested or failed to test, inspected or failed to inspect, packaged, labeled, fabricated, constructed, analyzed, distributed, serviced, merchandised, recommended, advertised, promoted, marketed and sold the flow switch for the automatic chemical controller and its component parts and constituents” as a responsible parties.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys claim the flow switch was defective.

Further, those who built and installed the automated system, the suit alleges, knew it was not adequate for its purpose and was unsafe. The suit also says the TLHCD administration was unaware of the danger posed by the defective products until they failed.

Finally, the suit says managers at Evolutions and the TLHCD failed to adequately inspect and properly maintain their public swimming pool.

Lawyers for Olsen and Wee are seeking general and compensatory damages, as well as reimbursement for lost wages, interest, attorneys fees and other costs incurred as a result of the June 27 incident at Evolutions.

In Depth: Tulare Regional Medical Center

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