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Victim of Social Ocean Diving Accident wins new trial

March 29, 2013

WOONSOCKET – A Superior Court judge has granted a new trial to a city man who was paralyzed after diving into the now-defunct “Social Ocean” in 2008.

Associate Justice Susan McGuirl threw out a 2011 jury verdict absolving the state of liability in causing Brett Roy’s injuries, saying she could not agree with the decision.

The judge said there was ample evidence presented at the trial showing an assortment of dangers existed at the man-made swimming hole at World War II Veterans Memorial State Park, including shallow spots, a sandbar, murky water and various man-made structures that invited diving.

Granted, the judge said, there were several signs posted indicating that no lifeguards were on duty and swimming was prohibited. But there were state workers on duty who knew of the dangerous diving conditions and who did nothing to stop visitors from swimming, despite the signs.

“DEM employees allowed patrons to enter the pond and to swim without lifeguards present,” McGuirl concluded in a 64-page decision. “The State knew that there were dangerous conditions present at the pond, knew that people were swimming and diving there, knew its failure to follow its usual opening procedures would jeopardize the safety of the public and nonetheless, opened the pond, without proper staff or signage.”

“As a result,” McGuirl said, “someone was severely injured.”

Normally, the park would have been opened with lifeguards on duty, but not in 2008. According to court documents, DEM was planning to keep the park closed that year because of budget constraints.

But after a hot and humid start to the summer, DEM was under public pressure to open the park and, after receiving a specific legislative grant, did so on June 27 – prior to hiring lifeguards. Roy was injured 13 days later, when he and his neighbor took their children swimming.

Roy, now 33, was paralyzed from the neck down after he dove into about three feet of water. He testified he thought the water was deeper based on previous diving experience in the same area.

Roy sued the state and DEM for $40 million in damages. Other plaintiffs in the case were his wife, Dawn, and their two minor children, Jalyn Roy and Brett Roy Jr.

Addressing an audience at the Rotary Club at River Falls in Woonsocket Thursday, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said he expects to decide early next week how the state will respond to the decision.

He said he is discussing the ruling with members of his appellate and civil divisions.

“We were very disappointed in that,” he said. “We think the state had a very good case.”

An attorney for Brett Roy was quoted by WPRI-TV as saying, “For whatever reason, the jury failed to follow the frank admissions by DEM staff about their inexcusable failures, we’re glad the judge recognized the strength of our evidence.”

Roy’s injury was one of two horrific tragedies that took placed at World War II Park that summer. Just nine days later, Sidney Jones, 47, of Providence, drowned while swimming at the pond, also while no lifeguard was on duty.

Today the status of World War II Park remains in limbo. Citing a lack of resources, the state has all but abandoned its presence at the park and DEM is offering to sell the 12-acre site to the city for $1. So far, the city has refused, saying it cannot afford to maintain the park, which has become a hangout for vagrants and drifters.

A plan to overhaul the site, including a “splash park” feature that would replace the pond, has been championed by State Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt (D-Dist. 49).

DEM Director Janet Coit, appearing before the state-appointed Budget Commission several months ago, acknowledged that the state has budgeted some $2.6 million for the project. But she said DEM is reluctant to begin releasing the funds without a long-term plan for maintaining the park.

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