Waterpark settles lawsuit brought by family of veteran who drowned

TImothy, before he was killed swimming at a waterpark

When mom-and-pop waterparks go rogue

Nine Mile Ranch was supposed to be a convenient watering hole for Texans in Liberty County to cool off during the summer. It was supposed to be fun. More importantly, it was supposed to be safe.

Until Nine Mile Ranch’s complete and utter disregard for safety caught up with it. The waterpark was created without reviewing any of the safety regulations in place for waterparks and public pools. The owner testified that she had built it solely based on looking at what other similar waterparks had done. Not at the laws.

She had hired a backhoe and crew who dug out the pool, then filled it with water. She dyed the water blue to keep weeds from growing and to disguise the mud. The result was an opaque, turquoise pond.

She chose to post “Swim at your own risk” signs rather than hire lifeguards because she’d heard that “lifeguards make you more liable.” She hadn’t done any research on it or consulted with her insurance company - she just assumed that was true.

Nine Mile Ranch seemed like an all-American, mom-and-pop operation. Until Timothy was killed in 2014 and then a young boy was killed in 2015. Then, it was exposed as the death-trap it really was.

Lax regulations and no safety oversight puts swimmers at risk

For businesses to be successful, they must follow the rules.That’s what most of us assume, at any rate. We believe that the system protects us from companies that just want to make a quick profit at our expense. We believe that the system keeps us safe from dangerous products, including waterparks. Except when there’s no oversight system in place to keep us safe, we are at risk of being taken advantage of by unethical, unsafe businesses.

It turns out Texas does not regulate these watering holes beyond decreeing they must be insured and the insurance companies must inspect them. There is no federal safety law that protects swimmers at waterparks, thanks to the lobbyists for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. But that does not mean that waterparks are immune from following any safety requirements. They are required to follow ANSI safety standards, which include guidelines to ensure that pools are built safely and are safe for people to use.

These ANSI standards for pools include guidelines for constructing pools as watertight structures made of easily cleaned surfaces that are slip-resistant. People can’t just dig a hole in the dirt and fill it with water, but the owner of Nine Mile Ranch hadn’t looked up these standards. 

Waterpark revealed for what it really was: a death trap

Facebook reviews of the waterpark state that the pool was “slippery and slimy,” which made it hard to get out of. Photos posted on Facebook show that the water was so opaque, you can’t see anything just below the surface of the water. ANSI rules state that pool water must be clear for the pool to be operational. You must be able to see the main drain of the pool as well- it must be sharply defined.

Nothing was done by Nine Mile Ranch to make their facility a safe place for people to use. And because neither Texas nor the federal government regulates places like Nine Mile Ranch, they were able to get away with running a death trap.

Until Timothy died, Nine Mile Ranch thought they could get away with their con. They thought there wouldn’t be consequences to their recklessness.

Decorated US Army veteran becomes death trap's next victim

Timothy’s headstone reads: “A soldier, a father, a son, a brother” This inscription doesn’t tell the whole story, if you talk to anyone who knew him.

Timothy was a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army. He served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and received multiple medals and commendations for his bravery.

He was a devoted son, father, and brother. He and his family were incredibly close. They talked every day, even with his brother still serving in the U.S. Navy. His mom testified that she still looks at her phone, waiting for him to call her.

His son, now four, asks for his daddy often, saying, “why can’t I have my daddy back?

Timothy had worked hard to become a teacher, after he retired from the Army, and he was in the process of getting his masters degree in history when he drowned. Timothy was a beloved history teacher at Palmer Middle School. Beloved by his students, his colleagues, his family, and his friends. He also coached track and mentored students.  

Timothy was just starting to leave his mark on the world. But that was all taken away by Nine Mile Ranch.

A mother's worst nightmare

Timothy and his family held their family reunion at Nine Mile Ranch in July 2014. The 50 or so family members who were able to go were excited to get together and enjoy a nice day. They had arrived early on a Saturday morning to get set up and to get the grill going. Timothy had ridden up with a relative and his son. He helped get the kids organized and started swimming with them. Timothy was an excellent swimmer who had been swimming since he was young.

But soon after he got into the water, he disappeared. His stepdad sounded the alarm, and the whole family started looking for him. They couldn’t see anything, so people were diving and groping around blindly. About ten minutes later, Timothy was found at the bottom of the pond. He was pulled out and CPR was performed.

In addition to not having any lifeguards, Nine Mile Ranch didn’t have any emergency resuscitation equipment. There happened to be off-duty volunteer firefighters at Nine Mile Ranch, but they didn’t have any equipment with them since they were there to enjoy the water. The owner called 911 and an ambulance arrived shortly afterward. In the ambulance, EMTs suctioned 300 CCs of sand and water out of Timothy’s mouth and were able to get a light pulse. They called for a helicopter to transport him to Memorial Hermann. Timothy’s mom and family drove to meet him there.

At the hospital, Timothy was pronounced dead. He never regained consciousness.

Waterpark unsuccessfully tries to blame the victim for its mistakes

Nine Mile Ranch tried to claim that he’d been drinking or had choked while eating. His family denied both allegations. An autopsy confirmed that he hadn’t been drunk or on drugs that morning, as well as that his airways had been clear. The coroner determined the cause of death was due to drowning.

The family received the death certificate in September and were upset to learn that Timothy’s death was listed as an accident. They contacted us for help. They believed, like the rest of us, that businesses like Nine Mile Ranch have an obligation to follow the rules and to run a safe operation. They didn’t want Nine Mile Ranch to get away with ignoring the rules.

We filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Timothy’s mother. In it, we argued that Nine Mile Ranch was negligent and responsible for Timothy’s death. We launched an independent investigation into Timothy’s death, Our investigation revealed the extent to which Nine Mile Ranch operated in violation of safety regulations. Nine Mile Ranch agreed to settle the lawsuit for the full limits of their insurance policy.

While nothing can bring back Timothy, this lawsuit was a wake-up call for the waterpark that they were putting people's lives in danger. The waterpark is now closed permanently.

Confidential Settlement