Three years ago, James Becker was doing what many vigorous 15-year-old boys do - playing baseball, basketball and soccer. He swam competitively and whacked forehands for his school's tennis team.
Now he is severely disabled, must use a wheelchair and is under the constant care of his mother. His speech is little more than a series of guttural noises.
The accident that reduced James to such circumstances occurred at the Woodcroft Swim Club in Parkville on July 29, 2006, when, his family's lawyer says, he almost drowned. His brain was apparently deprived of adequate oxygen for about 10 minutes.
On Thursday, his parents, William J. Becker III and Mary Becker, filed a $40 million lawsuit in Baltimore County Circuit Court against the swim club and the company that runs it, D.R.D. Pool Management Inc., accusing them of failing to both "timely recognize and respond" to the struggling boy and to properly perform resuscitation efforts.
Paramedics who arrived at the pool 13 minutes after the incident was reported found James without a pulse. They attempted to get his heart restarted, primarily by using a defibrillator. While in an ambulance headed toward Franklin Square Hospital Center, they found a pulse but, his lawyer says, the damage was done.
The lawyer, H. Briggs Bedigian, said the amount of damages sought for James "is not meant to shock the conscience," but represents the best estimate of what it will cost to care for him for the rest of his life. The suit accuses the defendants of negligence but does not seek punitive damages.
In the suit, the family is asking for $36 million for James, $3 million for his parents' expenses so far and $1 million for the boy's mother, who was at the pool with him and helped to pull him out of the water.
"Mary Becker was forced to bear eyewitness to her son James's horrifying near-drowning, [his] deteriorating condition in the minutes following his removal from the pool, and near death, which has resulted in real and severe emotional distress," the suit says.
At the time of the accident, James, an only child, was a sophomore at Archbishop Curley High School. Now, at 18, he attends the Chimes School, which serves children and young people who are developmentally disabled or have multiple handicaps, autism and other problems.
"He literally went from a normal, all-American boy who should have started college this year to basically the worst fate I can imagine," Bedigian said. "He can't eat, walk or talk. He's completely trapped, but he still has cognition - he recognizes people."
William W. Carrier, an attorney representing the swim club and the management company, said Thursday that the injury to James' brain was caused not by a near-drowning but by a heart attack he suffered in the pool. Carrier said James was pulled out of the water less than a minute after he showed signs of struggling, and never went to the bottom.
The boy was given CPR treatment by a Maryland Shock Trauma Center nurse who happened to be one of the 15 people swimming in the pool at the time, Carrier said, adding that three lifeguards were on duty and responded to the emergency.
The news that James had suffered a heart attack was common knowledge, Carrier said, and it was reported in the bulletin of the church the Becker family attended.
"We think there was no negligence and that we did everything properly in this case," Carrier said.
Woodcroft Swim Club is a private entity, owned by its members, who this year are paying dues of $550 and a bond of $325, according to its Web site.