A lawsuit filed in the drowning of an Alberta man in a public pool is shining a light on potentially dangerous breath-holding exercises and what responsibility facility operators have to supervise patrons who practise them.
A statement of claim filed by the family of Dumitru Serbulenco earlier this year says that on Dec. 12, 2020, he was performing repetitive breath-holding exercises at the Suncor Community Leisure Centre in Fort McMurray, Alta., and had asked lifeguards to watch him.
After being unconscious for six minutes, lifeguards rescued the 34-year-old man and administered CPR, says the statement of claim filed in February. Serbulenco was taken to the Northern Lights Hospital and died six days later.
His three-year-old daughter Zinovia was with him at the pool that day. The family’s lawyer said Serbulenco was a stay-at-home dad at the time.
The family is suing the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo and four staff members alleging they neglected to adequately supervise and rescue him.
The statement of claim says the operators of the pool failed to develop a policy concerning repetitive breath-holding exercises, citing the Alberta Public Swimming Pools Regulation.
“No family should have to go through such an avoidable loss,” widow Elena Serbulenco said in a written statement provided by her lawyer.
“His pride in fatherhood and marriage was extraordinary.”
None of the claims have been tested in court. The defendants deny all allegations and dispute the manner in which Dumitru Serbulenco died.
The defendants argue “they met and exceeded any such duty of care at all material times,” says the statement of defence.
Neither the lawsuit nor the family statement said why Dumitru Serbulenco was practising the breath-holding exercises, but free divers often use them as training to venture deep under water without a breathing apparatus.
The Lifesaving Society’s Alberta Public Pool Safety Standards recommends all public aquatic facilities develop a policy to restrict repetitive breath-holding activities.
“Repetitive breath-holding, prolonged breath-holding and prolonged underwater swimming is not permitted by the general public pool user,” the society says.
Both national and Albertan standards say repetitive breath-holding may be permitted in public pools, but they must be under the direct supervision of a qualified instructor or coach.
Jonathan Kusyanto, acting executive director of the Alberta and Northwest Territories branch of the Lifesaving Society, said the society provides guidelines but doesn’t have any legislative power.
“The standards are ultimately there to help support and educate pool owners and operators on what they can do to safely operate their facility,” said Kusyanto. “But they’re ultimately recommendations.”
The Alberta Public Swimming Pools Regulation states that “owners must develop and maintain written policies and implement plans for those policies in accordance with pool standards,” which includes the safety and supervision of all patrons.
In an email, the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo declined to comment given the legal process.
“The RRC has co-operated fully with the investigation of this incident,” said a spokesperson.
The drowning also led to a criminal case against a man who was working as a lifeguard at the time. In October, RCMP charged a 25-year-old man with criminal negligence causing death.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook-Canadian Press News Fellowship, which is not involved in the editorial process.
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