Lawyers are closely watching the case of a swimming pool company president who was charged with second-degree manslaughter Monday in a drowning case, saying it could change the legal landscape for business owners in Connecticut.
If successfully prosecuted, the criminal case against David Lionetti, president of Shoreline Pools in Stamford, could hold the state’s business owners and professionals to a new and stricter level of responsibility for their work, legal experts said.
Lionetti, 53, has been released on $25,000 bail. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Police say Lionetti, of Stamford, “recklessly caused the death” of 6-year-old Zachary Cohn in 2007 by failing to install mandated safety devices in the pool. Zachary drowned after his arm was trapped by the suction of a powerful drain pump.
Although the case is not unprecedented, criminal defense lawyers and legal experts said it is unusual.
“My guess is, if you’ve got a business where you’re dealing with dynamite or nitro, they’re going to hold you to a reckless standard if you do anything remotely off the protocol,” said Todd Fernow, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, who heads the school’s criminal law clinic. “But for something like a pool? People drown in pools every day.”
Lionetti’s attorney, Richard Meehan Jr., said his client plans to plead not guilty.
Eugene Riccio, a criminal defense lawyer in Bridgeport, described Lionetti’s case as a “creative use of the manslaughter statute” that could very well be proven in court.
“Just because it’s creative doesn’t mean it’s legally flawed,” he said. “It puts other people involved in commercial activities on notice that they could be held criminally liable in the conduct of their business.”
Defense lawyer Audrey Felson said she was “at a loss for words” when she first heard about the criminal charge brought against Lionetti.
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of this rising to the level of criminal responsibility. … There’s a lot of gray area [in criminal law], but these are things we would’ve never thought,” she said. “I could imagine it would make people in the service industry, whatever they do, much more concerned about what their obligations and responsibilities are.”
The case does not mark the first time that a business owner has been criminally charged in connection with services rendered in Connecticut.
David Wilcox, owner of the dump truck in a 2005 crash on Avon Mountain that killed four and injured 11, is facing manslaughter charges.
Fernow recalled an electrician he represented 15 years ago who was convicted of second-degree manslaughter after he incorrectly wired a heater and caused a house fire that killed a young child. Fernow unsuccessfully appealed the case, but he remains skeptical of the charge against Lionetti.
“There are going to be a lot of dueling experts. It’s going to be a very difficult case to litigate depending on [Lionetti’s] track record,” he said. “They’re going to have to show actual knowledge on his part of the failure to take measures. And I would be surprised, without knowing all of the facts, if this goes all the way.”
It’s possible, he said, that “this is just a show trial, to accomplish the purpose by scaring people.”
Since 1985, more than 150 cases have been reported in the U.S. of swimming pool drain entrapments, leading to at least 48 deaths and many serious injuries, including disembowelment, of children and adults, according to a lawsuit filed by Zachary’s parents.
Police said Zachary Cohn drowned when his arm got stuck in an intake valve in the deep end of the family’s in-ground pool on July 26, 2007. Water entering the intake valve is pumped through filters before being returned to the pool.
Zachary’s parents, Brian Cohn, former president of one of the world’s largest hedge funds, SAC Capital Advisors, and his wife, Karen, have filed a civil lawsuit alleging that the pool violated safety code requirements.
In a statement released Monday, the couple said they hoped that filing criminal charges against Lionetti would “prevent another horrific incident like this from happening to someone else.”
“Those who knowingly violate pool safety codes designed to protect children should be held accountable for their actions,” the couple said in the statement.