Drownings by electric shock are catalyst for bill proposed for Kentucky legislature

tcrumbie@herald-leader.comJuly 11, 2014 

A proposed amendment would prohibit swimming within 50 yards of a boat dock or marina where houseboats receive electrical power.

Nine years ago, Samantha Chipley drowned in Cave Run Lake near Scotts Creek Marina.

Chipley, 19, swam often and people were present when she drowned, said her mother, Roberta Chipley. But no one could get to her to help.

Chipley was swimming near a houseboat when she started screaming in pain. Her muscles seized. She couldn't move. Chipley's friends swam toward her, but they were immediately repelled by an electrifying sensation in the water. All they could do was watch as Chipley's body sank below the surface.

Chipley was the victim of drowning caused by an electric shock. Nearly a decade later, Chipley's death is the catalyst for a bill in the Kentucky legislature.

State Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, author of House Bill 107 — the Samantha Chipley Act — seeks to amend a Kentucky law to prohibit swimming within 50 yards of a boat dock or marina where houseboats receive electrical power. The limits on swimming would be self-enforced or by park rangers. Violators would face a $50 fine.

Sinnette said the goal is to prevent deaths like Chipley's.

"It's an easy fix," he said.

There have been other electrocution drownings in Kentucky in the past decade. Kevin Short died in Lake Cumberland in June 2013 and Kyle McGonigle drowned in Rough River Lake in May 2013.

Samantha Chipley was shocked because the hull of the nearby houseboat was charged with electricity, which was transferred into the water.

The shock Chipley received was relatively weak, and there were no physical marks of electrocution when her body was recovered. Gregory Davis, a professor of pathology and lab medicine at the University of Kentucky, said .02 amp is enough to cause muscle paralysis, which can result in drowning.

"That is a real present danger when there's faulty wiring in a houseboat or dock or something of that nature," Davis said.

Roberta Chipley is a part of the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association, a nonprofit organization formed to prevent deaths like her daughter's. The group has a Facebook page comprised of families and friends of people who died because of electric shock drowning. Chipley said she didn't want her daughter to die for "no reason."

"I want something good to come out of it," Chipley said.

Sinnette's bill would require boat docks and marinas to comply with the latest standards of the National Fire Protection Association and to get their electrical power from ground-fault protection.

Ground-fault protection can shut power off to a device or the whole boat if it detects electrical leakage, said Rodney Parrish of Thoroughbred Houseboats, a houseboat manufacturer in Monticello. People can be electrocuted if they directly touch the hull of the boat, he said.

It would cost $100 to $200 to install ground-fault protection, by Sinnette's estimates, but he said the cost shouldn't matter.

"When you talk to the families who have lost an individual family member, loved one, it would be a small price for them to have to pay," he said.

Sinnette has proposed two similar bills in the past, but both stalled.

Previous versions of his bills have been worded differently. For example, swimming within 100 yards of a houseboat was prohibited instead of 50 yards, and there was nothing about exempting boat dock or marina owners from liability if people swam regardless of the law.

Similar bills have been passed in Tennessee and West Virginia. Sinnette's bill is in committee, and he said he hopes to pass it next year.

Chipley said she doesn't think the bill will stop all deaths, but it will bring more awareness to electric shock drowning.

She said she plans to buy a map and put a gold star in every state that passes a marina safety bill. She and the Electric Shock Drowning Prevention Association have pledged to make sure the entire country adopts some version of the bill.

"We want to keep going until we're no longer needed," Chipley said. "That's our motto."

Trey Crumbie: (859) 231-1687. Twitter: @TreyCrumbieHL.

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