Valerie Lakey v. Sta-Rite

by Ted Frank on October 20, 2005

Five-year-old Valerie Lakey suffered devastating injuries when she was literally disemboweled when she sat on an open pool drain in 1993. Throughout the 2004 presidential campaign, John Edwards made much of his trial victory in this case against the manufacturer of the pool drain cover, Sta-Rite, and it immunized him from much criticism, with the media regularly making encomiums to his dramatic closing argument invoking his own dead son.

But it turns out the facts of the case are much more complicated than John Edwards and the media made out.

Valerie Lakey suffered horrendous injuries because other children at her municipal swimming pool vandalized the safety equipment protecting the pool drain and the city didn’t fix the problem. “‘I don’t believe this has anything to do with product design—it’s an issue of maintenance, an issue of a missing cover and the child sitting down on it,’ said Ken Giles, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.” (“Drain that injured girl lacked cover”, Raleigh News & Observer, Jun. 24, 1993). According to the same article, “The National Spa and Pool Institute, along with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, issued a list of precautions for pool owners and managers in 1982. It states that covers must be checked daily to see whether they are in good repair and to make sure they cannot be removed without tools.”

The powerful circulation pump, manufactured by another defendant, didn’t have a readily-accessible emergency shut-off switch. After John Edwards settled with the municipality and pump manufacturer for $5.9 million, guaranteeing him a hefty profit on the case, he was able to focus on the lottery-litigation against the manufacturer of the pool drain cover at trial, blaming them for not doing more to protect the pool drain from vandalism—including the standard second-guessing of the “failure to warn” the municipality of the obvious problems of letting the pool drain be vandalized. There was no evidence that the additional warning to screw in the drain cover would’ve made a difference: county regulations already required the pool drain cover to be screwed in, and the pool managers testified that they had done so several times in the year before Lakey’s accident. (“Defense argues pool staff knew to screw down drain covers”, Raleigh News & Observer, Jan. 10, 1997.)

The defense decided not to settle after it tried the case in front of four focus groups that agreed that it acted reasonably. But the jury in the Lakey case wasn’t allowed to make that decision: the judge erroneously instructed the jury that Sta-Rite acted unreasonably as a matter of law, apparently overreacting to a discovery dispute. Edwards had asked Sta-Rite to provide documents relating to the specific model of pool cover, and then thought to modify his request to include documents relating to all covers a week before trial—and when Sta-Rite provided the newly requested documents (which related mostly to hot tubs), Edwards accused them of having deliberately hidden the documents. (“Final stages of pool drain trial to begin”, Raleigh News & Observer, Jan. 6, 1997.)

Because of the risk of bankrupting punitive damages, Sta-Rite settled for slightly above insurance limits rather than appeal. According to Raleigh News & Observer, after the trial, a number of jurors said they could have gone either way until the judge instructed them on the question. (Anne Saker, “Focus groups becoming vital tool for N.C. lawyers”, Jan. 18, 1997.)

Sta-Rite had been putting warnings on its pool-drain covers since 1987, so the case did nothing to change their product; if anything, the additional safety innovation hurt them at trial because it was used against them to argue that they should have acted earlier.

The Monkeytime site has some additional details, including Edwards’s invocation of his son’s death.