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$35 million settlement demand for near drowning in Stamford not unusual

July 31, 2018

STAMFORD — Legal experts say a $35 million settlement request from the family of a former college student who nearly drowned at the Stamford YMCA pool is not unreasonable considering the man will likely never wake up again.

The federal lawsuit filed this month accuses the YMCA of negligence for the October 2017 incident when University of Connecticut-Stamford student Zhaojie Yang, 22, slipped underwater and his distress went unnoticed for an “extended period of time.”

Yang’s friend found him unconscious at the bottom of the 50-meter pool and he was taken to Stamford Hospital and then Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. He has since been flown to his native China, where he remains in a coma with little activity outside his brain stem, according to the four-page complaint filed by Bridgeport attorney William Bloss.

In an interview last week, Bloss said Yang — a UConn-Stamford business major who would have graduated in May — was a novice swimmer.

“He is never going to leave the hospital,” Bloss said. “That is just not possible.”

Some prominent local civil and criminal attorneys pointed to Yang’s bleak prognosis, and legal precedent — including Bloss winning a $12.3 million jury verdict against the Waterbury Boys and Girls Club for the 2008 drowning death of 5-year-old Briana Murray — for the $35 million settlement request.

Mark Katz, a Stamford attorney, said Yang could require round-the-clock care for decades, costing as much as $1,000 a day and $18.5 million over 50 years.

The settlement will take into account the man’s prognosis, life expectancy, ongoing and projected health care costs, lost earning potential based on whether he was on track toward a particular career and any unusual skills, abilities or talents he possessed, New Canaan attorney Matthew Maddox said.

“Jury verdicts have been delivered for wrongful death and disabling injuries in the scores of millions in Connecticut and elsewhere in the U.S.,” Maddox said.

In the complaint, Bloss said the YMCA was negligent by not properly hiring, training or supervising its lifeguards, and the organization was unable to adhere to recognized codes of water safety and rescue procedures. The complaint also said the lifeguards failed to properly scan the pool or have a proper action plan for rescuing someone.

Terri Wellman, interim chief economic officer of the YMCA, said the organization expects to be cleared of any wrongdoing.

“We sympathize with the family on the injury to their son and YMCA member,” Wellman said in a statement. “Based on the facts of this accident, we believe the court will find that our organization and its personnel acted appropriately before, during and after this tragic event. The Stamford Family YMCA has taught thousands of people to swim and enjoy the water safely over the past 150 years. Making sure all children and adults are safe in the pool is a top priority.”

Bloss said the two lifeguards were supposed to be stationed at both ends of the pool. However, Bloss said neither of them were near Yang when he was found in the deep end — 11 feet of water.

“To have the level of hypoxic brain damage this young man experienced as a simple matter of physiology, he would have had to be underwater for between three and five minutes,” Bloss said.

Unlike a similar incident that occurred about two months earlier at the Chelsea Piers Splash Zone, there was no video of the near-drowning at the YMCA.

That footage showed a 5-year-old New Canaan boy underwater for more than four minutes before he was rescued during a summer camp last August. The lifeguard, Zachary Stein, 24, was accepted into a two-year probation program for first-time offenders that will erase felony charges of reckless endangerment and risk of injury.

While the boy in the Chelsea Piers incident made a full recovery, Bloss said his client is not expected to have the same outcome.

Attorney Ernie Teitell, who won a large insurance settlement in 2008 following the drowning death of 6-year-old Greenwich boy Zachary Cohn, said lifetime expenses for these types of cases can be astronomical.

“The whole notion of tort law is that a negligent party should bear the brunt of those expenses, instead of the taxpayer, or society in general,” said Teitell, who declined to say how much he won in the Cohn case. “Someone has to foot the bill for that health care.”

jnickerson@stamfordadvocate.com

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