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What safety obligations do water park operators face?

On behalf of Cohn Lifland Pearlman Herrmann & Knopf LLP | Jan 23, 2019 |

Attach the term “brain-eating” to anything and you will likely draw attention. Most of the time, the fear evoked is rooted in horror tales that are more imaginary than real, but as one recent story of the death of a New Jersey man confirms, this is not always the case.

As multiple reports have indicated, the 29-year-old man contracted a form of meningitis after exposure to the Naegleria fowleri amoeba, more popularly called the “brain-eating amoeba.” The exposure apparently occurred while he was visiting a surfing water park in Waco, Texas. He died Sept. 21, not long after developing a brain infection.

Where there is risk, there is potential liability

Water parks are fun. With something over one dozen of them, New Jersey has its fair share. And as it turns out, the N. fowleri amoeba is one of those organisms that on one hand is rare and yet common. It thrives in the ground and in bodies of warm, fresh water and appears nearly everywhere, even tap water. But the only way it infects humans is by entering a person’s nose and migrating to the brain.

That doesn’t happen very often. There have only been about 140 cases recorded in the U.S. since 1962. But when it does strike, it is usually fatal because doctors don’t think to look for it until it’s too late. Three other forms of meningitis are more common.

Still, health officials and park operators know how to control N. fowleri through chlorination and testing. Because of that, logic dictates that if someone suffers serious or fatal illness because of unsafe water at a commercial venue, the operators bear liability if evidence shows neglect in ensuring patron safety. Indeed, a major water park industry website confirms that members acknowledge responsibility for maintaining water quality through regular testing and treatment.

Of course, it is very possible that the public health standards for water parks don’t include checking for N. fowleri. In that case, a question to raise might be whether standards need changing, especially since evidence indicates cases of this disease, which used to be largely restricted to southern-tier states, are beginning to appear as far north as Indiana and Minnesota.