It is winter, below zero here in Wisconsin this week, and I am warning about boating and carbon monoxide? As I joked to a friend who asked me about sailing – the water is a little hard right now.

Still, the carbon monoxide story of the day is a Washington Supreme Court Decision where a young woman died from carbon monoxide poisoning from swimming near the back of a boat: From that published case:

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON

JAY COLBERT,
)
MOOMBA SPORTS, INC.,

MADSEN, J. — Jay Colbert’s daughter, Denise Colbert, drowned after inhaling carbon monoxide fumes while hanging onto a motorboat as it was moving.

FACTS

According to Mr. Colbert, at about 3:00 a.m. on August 3, 2003, he and hiwife Kelly were awakened by a telephone call from Kyle Swanson, the boyfriend of Mr. Colbert’s daughter, Denise. Mr. Swanson was quite upset. He told them
that Denise had disappeared from the back of a boat at Lake Tapps and a search was taking place for her. At about 1:30 a.m. Denise Colbert and others had gone for a boat ride aboard Marc Jacobi’s boat. Ms. Colbert and a friend were in the water holding on to the swimmers platform at the rear of the boat as it headed toward shore.1 After an hour and a half in the water, they decided to go swimming, and, as her friend stated, “[a]ll of a sudden she was gone. We were just swimming, and then she went under. There wasn’t a struggle or anything.”

Neither wore a life jacket. There was a placard on the stern prohibiting people from being on or near the swim platform when the engine was running, but Mr. Jacobi did not take steps to move Ms. Colbert and her friend. Mr. Swanson and others searched for Denise and Mr. Jacobi called 911; the call was received at 2:58 a.m.

A short time later Kyle Swanson called Mr. Colbert who took his other children to a neighbor’s house and then drove to the lake, about five minutes from their home. When he arrived, police cars, ambulances, and the fire department were at the scene. Mr. Colbert saw lights flashing from a boat on the water and knew the search for his daughter was underway. He drove to a friend’s house on the lake and watched the rescue operation from the friend’s dock. He hoped Denise would be found alive because Denise was an outstanding athlete with stamina and endurance, and she was a strong swimmer. Police Chaplain Arthur Sphar traveled back and forth between the rescue site and the dock to update Mr. Colbert about the search.

At some point after 6:00 a.m. rescuers found Denise’s body. Sphar relayed this to Mr. Colbert. About 10 minutes later Mr. Colbert saw a buoy pop to the lake’s surface. Because he could hear the dialogue from rescue workers on the
lake he knew what this meant — it was tied to Denise’s body. Mr. Colbert watched rescue boats move alongside the buoy. He saw Denise’s body pulled over the side of a boat by her arm. He averred that he could see rescue workers move Denise’s body once it was on the boat from about 100 yards away on the dock from which he watched. Mr. Colbert explains it was light enough that he could see this activity. Mr. Colbert saw an ambulance by the water, watched the police bring a
stretcher, put a sheet over Denise’s body, and take her away. He testified at a deposition that he was able to recognize the body as Denise’s. Chaplain Sphar said they could see a body being pulled from the lake, but added it was not
possible to see identifying detail from the dock. Denise had died about three hours before her body was recovered from the water. The cause of Ms. Colbert’s death was “drowning” with “ethanol toxicity” and “carbon monoxide” noted as significant. Her blood alcohol level was 0.12 g/100 ml.

Editors Note: The claim with respect to the death of the daughter was not at issue in the Appellate court decision. The disposition of the issues that were before the court in this decision were that the claims of the father for negligent infliction of emotional distress were dismissed, essentially because he was not at the scene at the time his daughter drowned.

Why did this drowning happen? Why did a strong swimmer drown within a few feet of safety? Why would a BAC of .12 cause such a result?

This happened for the same reason that almost all of the other cases discussed on this blog occurred: because Denise was in the wake of the exhaust of an engine, an engine that was spewing carbon monoxide fumes. Boating accidents are a surprisingly large segment of the carbon monoxide deaths. Boats are clearly one of the largest risk factors for carbon monoxide poisoning outside of the winter heating season. Manufacturers of boats put swim platforms on the back of boats, the same part of the boat such manufacturers funnel the engine exhaust. If people swim off the the swim platform, when the engine is running, they are a serious risk of carbon monoxide exposure. Unlike on land, where a moment of unconsciousness still leaves a chance of rescue, when swimming it can quickly turn deadly.

Is a mere warning about the risk enough? We think not. Swim platforms should no more be put where exhaust is vented, than boiler exhaust should be vented into swimming pools, another major CO risk factor. When swimming and CO mix, there is no margin for error.

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