New witnesses have surfaced in a massive lawsuit filed against Cowabunga Bay water park in Henderson.
The park had only a handful of lifeguards on duty last year when a 6-year-old boy was pulled underwater and left paralyzed for life.
As the I-Team uncovered, that incident exposed serious enforcement issues within the Southern Nevada Health District, and now, current and former employees have come forward to tell us about other risks to public health, far beyond the walls of a water park.
Leland Gardner was a happy healthy kid when he visited Cowabunga Bay last May. Somehow he was pulled under the churning waters of the park’s giant wave pool, by the time he was pulled out minutes later, the damage was done.
“Leland suffered a catastrophic brain injury. He has minimal motor skills. He can’t talk. He can’t eat,” said Samuel Mirkovich, the attorney for the Gardner family.
Attorneys for the Gardner family are suing Cowagunga Bay because of what they say is a callous, systemic disregard for public safety.
According to the conditions that allowed the park to open, the sprawling wave pool needed to have 17 lifeguards on duty. In a sworn deposition, general manager Shayne Huish testified that the park never assigned that many lifeguards to the wave pool. On the day Leland was hurt, only three were working.
Once the park had opened, the health district never inspected it or checked the lifeguards. Two weeks after Leland’s injury, the park was again caught red-handed with fewer than half the required number of lifeguards at the wave pool. So what punishment did the district hand out?
“We charged them $118,” said Jackie Reszetar, Southern Nevada Health District.
Chief Environmental Health Officer Jackie Reszetar thinks $118 dollars was an appropriate fee for the violation that left Leland Gardner in his current state. She personally led the charge to give Cowabunga a variance.
Reszetar lobbied the health board to cut the lifeguard requirement by two-thirds. During that meeting, no mention was made of the park’s repeated violations of the law..
“How do you have a hearing about Cowabunga Bay’s lifeguards without mentioning what happened to Leland Gardner?
“I don’t know. I don’t know how they could ever show that because, to get a variance, you have to show financial burden and how you’ll protect the public. So if you have a facility that has a drowning because of non compliance issues, already that would not allow you to have a variance,” said a health district whistleblower:
This experienced health district whistleblower is one of a half-dozen longtime employees who’ve contacted the I-Team.
Inspectors told the I-Team, the wave pool should have been ordered closed, especially after a second failed inspection but the power to take that action was stripped from inspectors when Jackie Rezsetar was hired.
Reszetar implemented what she calls an industry-friendly approach, that is, businesses which are found in violation of health laws get the benefit of the doubt. It applies not only to water parks but in cases of food safety violations, sanitation risks, across the board. When inspectors find a violation, businesses know how to get around the law.
“There are a number of people in the industry, people that know if they go directly to Jackie Reszetar, they can get a lot approved or look the other way,” according to the whistleblower.
Inspectors say they work in fear, and it shows in the comments submitted during an employee survey last year. The results are overwhelmingly negative. Upper management is dysfunctional. The employees demoralized. A lack of honesty, transparency, and competency which put public health at serious risk when inspectors find health violations, they often don’t report them at all.
“Because they are afraid that she will just waive whatever law there might be, on a whim,” the whistleblower said.
The health district conducted a new employee survey back in September but, in light of the scathing responses generated last year, this latest survey did not provide a space for employee comments.