Water level in University of Regina pool a key issue in Paralympian's lawsuit

Calgary faces shortage of pools safe for competitive swimmers to dive into, university coach says

Lawyers will make their closing arguments before a jury Wednesday as to whether the University of Regina is liable for a diving accident that left Paralympic athlete Miranda Biletski a quadriplegic in 2005.

Among the key issues that have emerged is how much water was in the university swimming pool at the time, and the institution's lack of record keeping to verify pool maintenance and water levels. 

"It's been a long four weeks," Biletski, a wheelchair rugby player who competed in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, said outside of Regina Court of Queen's Bench. "It's definitely a lot more emotionally and physically draining than I think I was expecting going in."

Biletski is seeking damages in the millions of dollars.

A shallow dive gone wrong

In June 2005, the then 16-year-old was a promising speed swimmer who had relocated from her small town to Regina to compete at an elite level.

Just 37 days after she joined the Regina Piranhas Swim Club, which practised at the University of Regina, Biletski dove off starting blocks into the university pool, struck her head on the bottom and fractured her cervical vertebrae, leaving her a quadriplegic.  

Her lawyer, Alan McIntyre, told the court the injuries occurred on her second attempt at a training exercise to shallow dive off the raised starting blocks.

The swim club coaches had not assessed the teen's ability to attempt that kind of dive.

The U of R's starting blocks were located in an area of the pool that was 1.22 metres deep, which is in line with international standards. The International Swimming Federation, a world governing body for competitive swimming, now requires a minimum depth of 1.35 metres below starting blocks, but Swim Canada only enforces that depth for new pools built after 2002.

During the trial, McIntyre said that the raised blocks were positioned as high as possible above an area of the pool that was as shallow as possible and yet still technically compliant. He argued that the amount of water in the pool at that time becomes a key issue.

"It's within a hair's breadth of being non-compliant if the water is down," McIntyre said in court.

Pool water levels in question

Witnesses who worked at the pool or supervised the pool confirmed that the water depth drops from swimmers splashing about and removing water absorbed in their swimsuits. 

According to maintenance logs, documentation only showed that water had been added to the pool one time in the two months leading up to Biletski's accident. 

Craig Chamerblin, the university dean in charge of the pool at the time, testified that record keeping was a continuing problem.

Chamberlin told the jury that three witnesses — a swim club coach, a lifeguard, and the aquatics supervisor — told him the water was at the top of the pool when Biletski was injured, but that no measurements or photos were taken.

"It was eyeballed," Chamberlin testified. He said that while documentation was poor, the operation of the pool was not.

Under cross-examination, the U of R aquatics supervisor, Gabor Jerkovits, testified that he couldn't say for sure what the water level was at the time of the diving accident.

In court documents, the U of R said it operated and maintained its pool facilities in line with "generally accepted and approved practices" and that Biletski voluntarily assumed any risk.

The university filed its own suit against the Piranhas Swim Club to cover damages if liability is established.

The swim club's lawyer, Reg Watson, presented evidence that his client never signed a rental contract with the university that would relieve the institution of liability.

Biletski's life expectancy cut short

Biletski filed the lawsuit in 2007, and it's taken 10 years to make it to trial. 

Court has heard that Biletski has to put in her own catheter to go to the bathroom several times a day and that a bowel movement now takes her a couple of hours. She goes without equipment that would assist her to move around because she can't afford it, and insurance has denied her requests.

"Just because I don't sit around and complain about my life and my situation doesn't negate the struggles that come with it," Biletski said.  

Experts provided projections on how much her care will cost over her lifetime, and that quadriplegia will likely shorten her life expectancy.

"It's not fun hearing someone say that you're going to die 20 years earlier than everybody else," Biletski said.

The jury will receive directions from the judge Thursday morning, then begin deliberations.