Drowning of Adult Male Caused by Hypothermia Resulting From Failure Of Automatic Life Jacket To Inflate

Author: by Gerald M. Dworkin
Date: 7/16/00


An adult male drowned when his boat capsized and his automatic inflatable life jacket failed to deploy.

The victim had been fishing in a small boat with a companion. When they cast their lines out, the boat capsized spilling them both into 50 degree F. water. The companion who was not wearing a life jacket instructed the victim to hang onto the boat. However, when they did, the boat submerged and sank below the surface of the water. The companion then instructed the victim to swim to shore. The victim failed to give a verbal response to either direction. Both individuals began to swim to shore, but only the companion made it to shore. The victim’s automatic inflatable life jacket failed to deploy, and he made no effort to pull the emergency rip-cord to manually inflate the PFD.

The manufacturer of the automatic deployment mechanism with the life jacket admitted a defect in the deployment bobbin. However, this defect had to effect whatsoever on the manual inflation device. Because of the victim’s lack of experience and knowledge of his life jacket, he was not able to pull the emergency rip-cord to manually inflate it. Upon inspection of the life jacket after the body was recovered, it was determined the manual inflation unit was intact and would have deployed had the victim attempted to do so.

Because the victim did not respond verbally to any of the commands of the companion, we can only speculate that the victim experienced a torso reflex upon entering the cold water which constricted his airway (larynogospasm) and prevented air from entering his lungs resulting in hypoxia, unconsciousness, and drowning. Because of the air and water temperature, his survival time would have been extremely limited anyway due to immersion hypothermia.

Within the United States, inflatable PFDs must be worn in order to be considered as approved Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) by the U.S. Coast Guard. Owners of inflatable PFDs must become very familiar with the inflation deployment device and must take care in the maintenance and preparation of this device. The “Jerk to Inflate” emergency rip-cord must be unrestricted at all times and the wearer of the device must be knowledgeable in its use. Even automatic inflatable PFDs, which have only been recently approved by the U.S.C.G. within this country, are considered as backup only to the manual inflation (rip cord or oral) device.

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