A woman who was left severely brain damaged after almost drowning during a school swimming lesson has been awarded a landmark £2million payout.
Annie Woodland, then just 10, was left fighting for her life after being pulled from the water at Gloucester Park Swimming Pool in Basildon, Essex, in July 2000.
She survived, but for parents Alison and Ian, who were convinced that more should have been done to protect their daughter, it marked the start of an extraordinary 16-year battle for justice.
It was only in 2013, having taken their fight all the way to the Supreme Court, that a judge finally found in their favour and ruled that Essex County Council owed a duty of care towards Annie – even though a third party had been contracted to carry out the teaching.
The change in the law paved the way for a High Court trial last year, which concluded that the lifeguards and swimming teachers responsible for supervising Annie had breached that duty of care.
In the first case of its kind, the local authority has now agreed to pay two thirds of the £2million settlement, while the lifeguard at the time, Deborah Maxwell, makes up the rest.
For Annie, now 26, and her family, it is a relief, but bittersweet as they have never received an apology and say no amount of money can make up for the damage done.
“I still get upset, even all these years on,” said Alison, 50, who is also mum to 20-year-old twins, Joe and Tom.
“Annie was a happy, confident little girl who absolutely thrived at school. I used to pinch myself sometimes and think ‘how could she be mine?’
“This was never for any financial gain, it was to stop it happening to anyone else, but at least I know now that whatever happens in the future she is going to be safe and secure.”
Alison and Ian, 53, from Basildon, moved the family to Blackpool following the incident after receiving a backlash and even death threats from the community they had once called home.
Although they have since split up, both are still in the area close to Annie, who lives with partner Sam Hill. The couple also have a 13-month-old son, Joey.
Annie said: “If I didn’t have Joey I would probably be in quite a bad way still.
“I have had years of depression, but I just look at him and I am happy.
“I’ll never get over what happened, but I’ve got to move on with my life now and make the best of it for his sake.”
Despite loving being a mum, Annie says life is still a daily struggle and the hidden nature of her brain injury makes it hard for people to understand.
Instead of bruises or scars, her condition is marked by memory problems and extreme fatigue.
She is unable to work and lawyers will also handle her finances going forward as she does not have the capacity to manage her own affairs.
She added: “I would say the hardest thing about having a brain injury is the tiredness.
“My balance is also really rubbish – I will walk into stuff all the time and am constantly covered in bruises.
“If I don’t put things in my phone I don’t remember. I have to write down what I have done and what I have coming up.
“I can’t even explain what it’s like. It affects everything, but you try and explain what’s wrong with you and people don’t believe it.
“People don’t understand it because they can’t see it and that’s very difficult. It’s a lonely place to be.”
The family’s lawyer, Jennifer Maloney, a serious injury specialist at law firm Slater and Gordon, said: “Annie is a brave young woman who has been forced to spend most of her childhood and all of her adult life dealing with the devastating consequences of what happened.
“She deserves some peace of mind which I hope this settlement will bring.”
Dad Ian added: “The spark that Annie had disappeared after the accident. I would say it’s only recently started to come back; she’s getting close to the little girl I had before all this happened.
“It has been absolutely horrific, but if anything good can come from this it’s that Annie’s case has changed the law for the better for the safety of other children.”