A swimming pool company president charged in a Connecticut boy's 2007 drowning pleaded guilty Wednesday to criminally negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, for not installing a state-mandated safety device.
David Lionetti had been charged with manslaughter, which could have carried a 10-year sentence, but will be spared jail time under a plea deal accepted by a Stamford Superior Court judge. His company, Shoreline Pools, pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and will pay $150,000 for water-safety advertisements.
Lionetti recklessly caused 6-year-old Zachary Cohn's death in 2007 in Greenwich, because his company failed to install a required safety device that would have prevented the boy's arm from getting stuck in a powerful pump drain, prosecutors alleged.
His attorney, Richard Meehan Jr., has said Lionetti was unaware of the 2004 state law requiring the device.
Lionetti expressed his condolences to the Cohn family, and said his company has vowed to "be a leading voice for pool safety in the industry." He said the firm spent more than $750,000 retrofitting pools to make them compliant with the law.
Under the plea agreement, Lionetti will perform 500 hours of community service and repair 100 pools to comply with legal requirements and building codes.
Attorneys for both sides say they don't know of another case in which a pool company executive was criminally charged in an entrapment death.
"Let these guilty pleas serve as a signal to the pool industry that safety will always be your No. 1 priority, and essential changes to national regulations needs to be made so no other family has to endure the death of a child in this manner," said Ernie Teitell, attorney for the Cohn family.
He said Lionetti and Shoreline Pools "disregarded essential measures during the building process to keep the Cohn's pool safe for swimmers. There is no excuse for this behavior."
The boys' parents, who were not in court, created the Zac Foundation in his memory to campaign for pool safety with two national education campaigns.
"Nearly four years have passed since Zachary's death, a tragedy that no parent should have to endure again," Zachary's parents, Karen and Brian Cohn, said in a statement. "This unspeakable loss has made us keenly aware of the dangers that still exist in private and public pools across the country, dangers of which parents and pool owners must be made aware."
Authorities say the safety device would have detected the drain obstruction and turned the system off.
John Romano, past president of the Northeast Pool and Spa Association and president of a pool company in Norwalk, said he told Lionetti about the new state law as part of an awareness campaign the trade group conducted in October 2005, according to an arrest affidavit.
The trade group also sent alerts to Shoreline Pools about code changes, the affidavit said. Numerous employees of Shoreline Pools, including Lionetti, attended annual trade shows where the devices were displayed and marketed, according to the affidavit.
Meehan has said Romano is a competitor and his account would be contested in court. He also noted that Romano says in the affidavit that the new code requirements had been "under our radar" for about a year.
Paul Pennington, whose company makes the safety device, has said some pool companies were not installing the device before the boy drowned in Greenwich. He said there was plenty of publicity about the new requirement, but some pool companies may have believed the industry was successfully fighting to overturn the new code requirements.
Since 1985, more than 150 cases have been reported around the country of swimming pool drain entrapments, leading to at least 48 deaths, according to a lawsuit filed by Zachary's parents against Shoreline, the town of Greenwich and others. The entrapments also have caused many serious injuries, including disembowelments, of children and adults, the lawsuit says.