Summer Pleasures Spoiled by Lawsuits

Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, millions of us have enjoyed the beauty of a natural swimming hole. Before we built so many pools, that's what "going swimming" meant. But increasingly, the joy of diving in is forbidden because people who head over to the old swimming hole are met with signs that say "Keep Out!" And speaking of diving in, if you do head to the pool you might find that there's no diving board in sight.

The swimming hole used to be the center of summer activity in High Falls, N.Y. When "20/20" first visited six years ago, Barbara Esmark said she couldn't believe what the town had lost. "People were having a good time. It wasn't wild, it wasn't late at night. It was just a good summer time," Esmark said. "People were having a ball."

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'People Will Sue You for Anything'

So why is the swimming hole closed now? Because the man who owns the land, Robert Every, is worried that if someone gets hurt they'll sue him. "They could take everything I own," he said.

Every bought the land from the local fire department, which had been warned by its lawyers to get rid of the property. "People will sue you for anything," said Elisa Scherrieble, chairwoman of the High Falls Fire Commission. "We had a huge exposure down there and we just felt that we needed to get rid of it, in the best interest of our residents and our district."

Joanne McParlan still enjoys the swimming hole, but only because she climbs over the barrier and sneaks in. She had been swimming there for more than 25 years. "It's sad to me what's happening because children aren't going to know [swimming holes] anymore. They're just going to know swimming pools."

How many summer pleasures have we lost because people are afraid of being sued?

'A Tragedy'

Today fewer kids have an opportunity to learn to jump off a high dive because school diving programs have been dropped, and across the country, lots of diving boards have been taken out of pools altogether -- especially the high boards.

For 30 years at the Chesterbrook Swim Club in Fairfax County, Va., the high board helped kids like 8-year-old Kelsey learn to test their limits.

"I once stepped on it but I was too afraid to go off of it," Kelsey said.

Now she won't even have the chance to try, because the high board is gone.

Economist Steve Moore belongs to the Chesterbrook Swim Club. He was so upset about the loss of the high dive that he wrote a Wall Street Journal column about it.

"It's kind of a tragedy and people feel like this kind of rite of summer fun has been lost because of lawsuits and liability insurance," Moore said.

During his research, Moore assumed he'd find an epidemic of diving accidents at his pool…but he didn't.

"We've had that high diving board for 30 years and do you know how many serious accidents we've had? Zero!" he said.

Unintended Consequences?

And nationwide, the government says diving accidents are rare. But there might be an accident and then a lawsuit. Better get rid of every risk, even good ones. Of course, the lawyers say they only sue when there are unnecessary risks, or negligence. And they claim their suits make life safer -- but do they?

"The major source of accidents at swimming pools is when people dive off of the shallow end of the pool, and what diving boards do is they provide people with a visual image of where the shallow end is and where the deep end is. And so in fact, diving boards can actually enhance the safety of a swimming pool," Moore said.

And similarly, at the old swimming hole, do "no trespassing" signs make people safer? Are people safer sneaking in to swim? The bans just encourage people to break the rules. Six years ago, instead of entering at the gate, a 21-year-old man went to a more dangerous part of the swimming hole to gain access…and he drowned.

And what exactly do these "no trespassing" signs teach kids? Children learn by testing their limits, by gauging what they can handle.

Closing swimming holes and taking down diving boards can make kids less self-protective. Yes, many kids may fall and hurt themselves swimming or climbing trees, but are we happier or safer when they aren't even given the chance to try?

Give Me a Break.

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