Drowning accidents cause around 4,000 deaths and 8,000 emergency room visits every year in the United States. Ten leading ways for them to happen are:
- lack of swimming skills,
- drugs and prescription medications,
- unsupervised children,
- unsupervised swimming,
- untrained supervision,
- unprotected pools,
- not wearing a life jacket,
- loss of consciousness, and
- flooding disasters.
In some cases, the property owner can be held liable.
1. Lack of swimming skills
Many drowning victims are weak swimmers or cannot swim at all. If they find themselves in water that they cannot stand up in, they are at significant risk of drowning. They will find themselves unable to reach a safe location, and will struggle to tread water. If they are not rescued quickly, they may drown because of their poor swimming skills.1
These people tend to avoid waters that would be a danger to them. However, they may still drown if they:
- crash a car into a body of water,
- try to save someone else from drowning,
- are in the path of floodwater,
- try to teach themselves to swim without supervision,
- go swimming while intoxicated by drugs or alcohol, or
- swim in water with poor water clarity, causing it to appear shallower than it is
2. Alcohol consumption
Drinking alcohol can lead to a drowning accident. Alcohol use and impairment
- reduces your coordination, balance, judgment, rationality, and physical prowess,
- increases your reaction times,
- causes you to overestimate your physical abilities, and
- makes you more likely to take risks.
In fatal drownings associated with a recreational aquatic activity, like boating, up to 70 percent of victims have had alcohol in their blood. People with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10 percent have a 10 times higher risk of death while boating than those who have not been drinking.2
3. Using drugs or prescription medications
Using drugs or prescription medications can also lead to a drowning accident. Like alcohol, certain drugs can impair your judgment and your motor skills, especially those that treat psychotropic conditions like:
- bipolar disorder,
- anxiety, and
4. Unsupervised children
Leaving children unsupervised near a body of water is a leading cause of death by drowning. The body of water does not have to be large. It can be a:
- swimming pool,
- stream or brook,
- hot tub,
- a bucket, or
- any container with an inch of water
These accidental deaths can happen quickly, as well. It only takes a minute or two for the lack of oxygen to cause serious or fatal medical conditions. Plus children who are drowning rarely make any sounds.
Note that throughout the world, the highest drowning rates comprise minors ages one through four and then minors five through nine. In many of these cases, the culprit is inadequate supervision combined with the child’s inability to swim. Many children simply lack the core strength to stay afloat.
5. Swimming without supervision
Swimming without supervision can also lead to a drowning accident. If something goes wrong in the water, there will be no one there to help. This is especially dangerous for:
- weak swimmers,
- people with a history of cramping,
- swimmers who are on medication that can make swimming unsafe, and
- anyone who has been drinking or taking drugs.
Note that drownings can take place in large crowds as well. In an overcrowded area, it is easy to miss one distressed swimmer.
6. Untrained supervisors
Even if there is someone to supervise your swimming, it can still lead to a drowning accident if the person monitoring you does not know the signs of someone drowning. These untrained supervisors may not realize that you are in danger until it is too late. A few of the signs that someone is drowning are:
- the person is struggling to swim or stay above water,
- the swimmer’s head is tilted back, but their mouth is open,
- eyes that are glassy, closed, or empty,
- gasping to breathe, or
- going underwater and not reemerging.
Some of these signs contradict each other. This makes it difficult to know for sure whether a swimmer is in the process of drowning. Supervisors who do not know these signs may not react in time or may not notice the danger at all.
This is why it is so important to only swim where there are properly trained lifeguards. They are trained to notice the signs of a drowning or near-drowning accident, and they know never to leave the area they are supervising until another lifeguard relieves them of their duty. Lifeguards are also strong swimmers and are trained in resuscitation efforts, should you need them.
7. Lack of barriers or protection around a pool
If there are not adequate barriers, latches, gates, or fences around a pool or other body of water, people can access it without supervision. This can lead to a drowning accident. This is especially common for child trespassers.
This cause of drowning accidents was so common that many state lawmakers passed rules that required fencing around swimming pools. One example is the California Swimming Pool Safety Act.4
8. Not wearing a life jacket
A drowning accident can happen when someone does not wear a life jacket. This is an especially common cause of drowning for victims like:
- weak swimmers,
- the elderly,
- children, and
- boaters, particularly if they are far from land.
Wearing a life jacket can even reduce the odds that a good swimmer will drown. No matter how strong of a swimmer you are, if you get hurt or suffer a head injury in the water, you can struggle to stay afloat.
Drownings can also result from relying on missing or broken emergency equipment, such as a defective life raft or an inner tube that does not meet industry standards.
9. Loss of consciousness
Another common cause of a drowning accident is losing consciousness. This can happen in several ways. You can:
- hit your head on an object,
- have a seizure, or
- suffer a medical event.
If you lose consciousness in a body of water, you will not stay afloat. You can sink and drown. The speed of the sinking turns on your muscle mass, weight, and how much air is in your lungs.
The body of water does not have to be large. If you lose consciousness in a bathtub or a hot tub, you can still drown.
In fact, many able-bodied adults fully capable of swimming die in bathtubs after
- falling asleep in the tub or
- falling into the tub and passing out
Finally, some drownings are caused by preexisting medical conditions or disorders. For example, a skilled swimmer who has an epileptic seizure/fit in a pool is at risk of drowning if there is no one around to fish them out.
Flooding, especially flash flooding, can also lead to a drowning death or accident. This is especially common when the flood released an enormous amount of water or when people in the way of the water had no way of knowing that it could happen.
For example: Mary is walking her dog on a riverside trail. The trail is near a dam. The dam’s operators regularly release the water behind the dam to control its flow. However, they have not put signs on the trail to warn hikers like Mary.
How often do drowning accidents happen?
Drowning accidents are frighteningly common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of 3,957 people drowned accidentally every year from 2010 through 2019. Another 8,080 were brought to the emergency room per year for non-fatal drowning accidents. These non-fatal drownings were 5 times more likely than other accidental injuries to require extended hospital stays.5
These accidents are especially common among:
- young children under the age of 4,
- people who have seizure disorders or certain other medical conditions,
- people with disabilities, and
- certain races.6
For children aged 1 through 14, drowning in non-boating accidents is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury, behind only car accidents.7
According to WHO (the World Health Organization), accidental drowning ranks as the third most frequent cause of accidental death. An average of 236,000 perish each year.8 Of these, about 80% are men because males are more likely to engage in water-related activities than women.9
What are the stages of drowning?
A drowning typically goes through four stages:
- Surprise. You know you are in danger and are shocked at the feeling of water entering your lungs. Your arms may flail about as your legs remain still. At this point you are considered a “distressed swimmer.”
- Holding your breath. As an involuntary reaction, your epiglottis closes over your throat. You may still flap your arms about. At this point you are considered an “active drowning victim.” If this goes on long enough, you will pass out.
- Lack of consciousness. You enter respiratory arrest and will sink. You may make involuntary jerking movements due to hypoxic convulsions. Meanwhile, your nails, lips, and skin may turn blue, and your mouth may froth. At this point you are considered a “passive drowning victim.”
- Death. Your circulation stops and you enter cardiac arrest. Unless someone administers CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) in time, you will enter clinical death. CPR comprises chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth ventilation.
This entire process can take up to 12 minutes, though it can happen much quicker. Drowning bodies typically remain upright in the water for only up to one minute before sinking.
Usually by the time someone calls 911 and paramedics arrive, it is too late.
Are all drownings fatal?
Not all drowning accidents are fatal. Those that are not fatal, however, generally lead to serious medical conditions and neurological disorders, like:
- brain damage,
- difficulty thinking or concentrating,
- pneumonia, and
- lung infections from bacteria in the water.
The severity of these conditions often depends on how long you were under water. The longer you were submerged, the longer your brain and body will go without oxygen. A prolonged lack of oxygen can lead to a wide variety of serious injuries. These will lead to extremely high medical bills and other losses.
Who can be sued for a drowning accident?
Depending on the circumstances of the accident, the following parties may be negligent for drownings that occurred on their property or on their watch:
- Private owners
- HOAs or neighborhood associations
- Multi-generational recreational centers or senior centers
- Lifeguards and other staff
- Event managers (for failing to have a good drowning prevention plan)
- Companies that manufactured the pool or related equipment
A personal injury attorney from a reputable law firm can help victims of unintentional drowning injuries recover the compensation that they deserve. If the drowning incident led to a fatality, they can help the victim’s loved ones or family members file a drowning accident lawsuit.
Call us for help…
In many cases, our drowning accident lawyers can hold the property owner liable through premises liability law. You may be able to recover damages for medical bills, lost wages, loss of support and companionship, property damage, and funeral expenses. Contact us today for a consultation.
- Pharr J, Irwin C, Layne T, and Irwin R., “Predictors of Swimming Ability among Children and Adolescents in the United States,” Sports 2018;6(1):17.
- Driscoll TR, Harrison JA, and Steenkamp M., “Review of the role of alcohol in drowning associated with recreational aquatic activity,” Injury Prevention 2004;10(2):107–113.
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Drowning Facts.”
- California Health and Safety Code 115920 et. seq.
- See note 3.
- Drowning, World Health Organization (April 27, 2021).
- Ben Thompson, Why are men more likely to drown than women? The CDC explains, WCNC Charlotte (June 23, 2021).