Minneapolis Golf Club settled with Abigail Taylor's family for $8 million in the girl's fatal accident.
By MAURA LERNER, Star Tribune
Last update: September 4, 2008 - 9:53 AM
April 10: State faults club for Abigail's pool injury
March 22: Abigail Taylor: A fighter to the end; she helped spur new laws
Eight days before 6-year-old Abigail Taylor became trapped in a country club's wading pool, the staff talked about how the powerful suction created by a faulty drain could kill or injure someone.
But no one acted to make sure the drain in the club's pool was safe, and eventually Abigail's injuries cost the youngster her life.
Those unsettling revelations emerged Wednesday in the wake of an $8 million settlement between the Minneapolis Golf Club and the girl's family. The club also agreed to fire its manager and pool operator, according to the club's president, Herb Houndt.
Abigail, who lived with her parents and three sisters in Edina, died of complications of her injuries in March, nine months after she lost part of her intestines in the pool-drain accident. Her case drew national attention and prompted new federal and state pool-safety laws, one of which bears her name.
Since last year, the club's manager, Ray Clemas, had maintained "there wasn't anything wrong with the pool." But on Wednesday, Clemas and the pool operator, Alan Klemisch, were fired as part of the settlement, Houndt confirmed.
"It was the right thing for us to do as one of the parties with legal responsibility for this unimaginable tragedy, and we accept responsibility," Houndt said of the settlement. The club, in St. Louis Park, had only $6 million in insurance coverage and will take out bank loans for the remaining $2 million.
Abigail's father, Scott Taylor, said he was "glad to have this chapter behind us." But, he added, "this is not closure by any stretch of the imagination."
The family's lawyer, Robert Bennett, said an investigation turned up evidence that the pool operators repeatedly cut corners and used shoddy, worn-out materials on the drain cover, often ignoring the safety instructions from the manufacturer.
'On the cheap and in a hurry'
"They ran everything on the cheap and in a hurry," said Bennett. "They bought the right assembly from Sta-Rite back in 1999. [But] they threw the bottom away," he said, and attached the top to a worn-out frame with worn-out plugs.
He said they did the same thing in 2002, the last time the cover was replaced.
If installed properly, he said, the drain cover was designed to resist 500 pounds of pressure. But the way it was jury-rigged, tests showed the cover came off with only 12 pounds of pressure, he said. The cover was lying at the bottom of the wading pool, next to the open drain, when Abigail was injured on June 29, 2007.
The tragedy captured headlines around the country, in part because it was seen as a freak accident.
But on June 21, 2007, the club's manager and 10 other staffers had attended a meeting about "the hazards that can be seen in and around pools," according to the minutes of the meeting.
Klemisch mentioned four potential dangers: chlorine smell, foam in hot tubs, urination in pools, and "old-style outlet covers [suction]." Among the risks: "loose or missing covers -- result in disembowelment or death," according to the document, later stamped "exhibit 18."
It says that Klemisch "also brought examples of covers that can be installed to reduce the likelihood of these events."
No action, no warning
But no one acted on that information, Bennett said, or even warned the teenage lifeguards to watch out for loose drain covers.
Bennett said staffers admitted they installed the drain cover haphazardly because they were trying to cut costs and save time.
"It got more and more unbelievable," Scott Taylor said of the revelations. "We want everybody to know what can happen when you make these kinds of decisions and how poorly it was run there."
A 2008 state law, named after Abigail, now requires pool owners to check drain covers daily and install them properly. Her case also helped propel a new federal pool-safety law, which took effect in December.
Taylor said part of the settlement money will be used to pay off nearly $3 million in medical bills and other costs from Abigail's treatment. She had a multiple-organ transplant in Nebraska in December to try to repair the damage from her injuries, and never left the hospital. She died on March 21.
In May, the family quietly reached a confidential settlement with the company that made the drain cover, Sta-Rite Industries, according to Bennett. He said Sta-Rite, which is owned by Pentair Inc. of Golden Valley, also contributed $2 million to a foundation the family created, Abbey's Hope, to promote pool safety and encourage organ donation.
The settlement with the Minneapolis Golf Club had to be approved by voting members because the amount exceeded its insurance policy. Houndt said the settlement was ratified 185 to 5. "I hope it never happens again anywhere else," he said.
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384