‘Avoidable loss:’ Widow of man who drowned in Fort McMurray pool sues operator
A lawsuit filed over the drowning of an Alberta man at a public swimming pool sheds light on potentially dangerous breath-hold exercises and the responsibility of facility operators to supervise patrons who practice them.
A lawsuit filed earlier this year by Dumitru Serbulenco’s family says he repeatedly performed breath-hold exercises and asked lifeguards to watch him on December 12, 2020 at the Suncor Community Leisure Center in Fort McMurray, Alta.
After he was unconscious for six minutes, lifeguards rescued the 34-year-old man and performed CPR, the lawsuit filed in February said. Serbulenco was taken to Northern Lights Hospital and died six days later.
His three-year-old daughter, Zinovia, was with him at the pool that day. The family lawyer said Serbulenco was a stay-at-home father at the time.
The family is suing the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo and four associates for failing to adequately supervise and rescue him.
The lawsuit alleges that the pool’s operators failed to develop a policy for repeated breath-hold exercises, citing Alberta’s Public Swimming Pools Ordinance.
“No family should have to suffer such an avoidable loss,” Elena Serbulenco, his wife, said in a written statement from her attorney.
“His pride in fatherhood and marriage was extraordinary.”
None of the claims have been tested in court. The defendants deny all allegations and dispute the manner of Dumitru Serbulenco’s death.
The defendants argue “that they have, at all relevant times, fulfilled and exceeded those due diligence requirements,” the defense brief reads.
Neither the lawsuit nor the family statement said why Dumitru Serbulenco practiced the breath-hold exercises, but freedivers often use them as training to venture deep underwater without breathing apparatus.
The Lifesaving Society’s Alberta Public Pool Safety Standards recommends all public water facilities develop a policy to limit repeated breath-holding activities.
“Repeated breath-holds, prolonged breath-holds, and prolonged underwater swimming are not permitted by the general public pool user,” the society says.
Both national and Albertan standards state that repeated breath-holding may be permitted in public pools, but they must be under the direct supervision of a qualified instructor or trainer.
Jonathan Kusyanto, acting executive director of the Lifesaving Society’s Alberta and Northwest Territories branch, said the society provides policy but has no legislative power.
“The standards are ultimately there to support pool owners and operators and educate them about what they can do to keep their facility safe,” said Kusyanto. “But they are ultimately recommendations.”
Alberta’s public pool ordinance states that “owners shall develop and maintain written policies and implement plans for those policies in accordance with pool standards,” which includes the safety and supervision of all visitors.
In an email, the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo declined comment in light of the legal process.
“RRC has fully cooperated in the investigation into this incident,” a spokesman said.
The drowning also led to a criminal case against a man who was working as a lifeguard at the time. In October, RCMP charged 25-year-old Ruslan Atantayev with criminal negligence resulting in death.