During the long summer holidays of the early 1980s one of my favourite morning television shows was Huckleberry Finn and Friends. I don’t recall the storylines but the scenes of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer jumping into the Mississippi was the sort of fun and freedom I truly envied and have which stick in my mind to this day.
The temptation of a cooling dip on a hot day is as strong today as it was in 19th century Missouri. Statistically, young males are especially unable to resist the allure of their local rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. In the middle of a heat wave, what could appear more wholesome, natural and harmless?
The reality of the situation is quite different. Deceptively cold water, underwater currents, reeds, weeds and rubbish can all catch out the strongest of swimmers. Not for nothing are the summer months labelled “peak drowning season” by the emergency services.
The fantastic weather we’ve enjoyed so far this year has brought heartbreak to families whose loved ones have got into trouble whilst swimming in lakes. Eight people died in the North West during last year’s heatwave, with more people feared missing in the water.
These terrible incidents are nothing new. The latest Water Incident Database (WAID) shows there were 1,931 drowning fatalities from 2014 to 2020. A report written by the National Water Safety Forum in 2017 recommended mandatory lessons about cold water shock as part of the primary education curriculum to deter future instances. Almost a year later though, this proposal is still awaiting the Government’s attention.
Despite warnings issued by the Police, signage prohibiting swimming and even news reports of these deaths, the tiny minority assume they are immune to the risk. For the time being at least it seems likely that reports of this sort will continue to make the news.
The legal position for the victims of this sort of incident, however, is quite clear. The starting point is normally that they are doing something which is specifically forbidden by signage. So, legally they are trespassers.
The danger to which the swimmer is exposed arises out of his own choice to engage in risky activity and not as a result of the state of the land. Although trespassers are owed limited duties by landowners, even when the landowner is aware that illicit swimming is taking place, case law has established that there is little or no duty to do anything to stop it.
But what happens if you’re the innocent bystander of a potentially fatal drowning situation? If you pull someone from the water and they are unresponsive, be sure to follow these steps from the British Red Cross to potentially save a life:
- Check if they are breathing. Tilt their head back, look, listen and feel for any breaths. If you find they still aren’t breathing, continue following the below steps:
- Call 999 for emergency help, or urge someone else to if you are unable.
- Give them five rescue breaths: tilt their head back, sealing your mouth over their mouth. Pinch their nose and blow into their mouth. Repeat this process five times.
- Give 30 chest compressions. Push firmly in the middle of their chest and then release. Repeat this step 30 times.
- Give two rescue breaths then continue with cycles of 30 chest compressions and two rescue breaths – until help arrives. (2)
So, for anyone tempted by the understandable attraction of an outside swim during peak drowning season (or any season, for that matter), take this advice:
The first is to seek out an organised “open swimming” event where the activity is safely supervised. The second is only needed if the first is ignored. Coincidentally it also originates from a film I watched way back when …”STAY OUT OF THE WATER”.
This blog was written by Robert Jones, one of Birchall Blackburn Law’s Associate Solicitors in Serious and Catastrophic Injury.