Family of woman who died in stress-relieving flotation pod sues business

A lawsuit claims an employee who found Gloria Fanning in "a state of distress" inside a float tank did not call 911, but called her boss instead

By Claire Ballor
The Dallas Morning News

FLOWER MOUND, Texas — Gloria Fanning walked into a health spa in Flower Mound one afternoon to use a gift certificate her daughter had given her. The 71-year-old had never been in a float tank before but planned to give the new spa trend a try.

A lawsuit filed Thursday says Fanning never walked out of the doors of The Float Spot that day in March. Instead, her body was wheeled out on a stretcher after she drowned in one of the spa's enclosed flotation tanks.

Fanning's family is suing The Float Spot and its owner, Raymond Thoma, for negligence and seeking over $1 million in damages.

Thoma and representatives of The Float Spot did not respond to requests for comment.

An attorney representing Fanning's family, Michael Lyons, said the spa gives a "laughable" response to those who wonder if it is possible to drown in one of their tanks.

On the company's website under "frequently asked questions," it says a person can drown in the tank "only if you can lay face down in the water and can tolerate the sting of the salt in your eyes, nose and mouth OR allow someone else to lay on top of you while you allow all of the above to happen."

The facility, which touts itself as "the world's first tranquility studio," is not registered through the Texas secretary of state, as is required for health spas that sell memberships. Neither is its location in Frisco.

The spa uses isolation pods, also known as sensory deprivation tanks, that are "filled with 300 gallons of water precisely heated to between 92º and 93º, super saturated with 1100 lbs of medical grade Epsom Salts," according to the company's website. 

The company claims that the floating sessions promote a long list of health benefits, such as pain relief, exercise recovery and stress management.

The futuristic egg-looking tanks, which are outfitted with a hinged lid, are designed to give clients a relaxing experience by allowing them to lie weightless.

But for Fanning, the contraption became a death trap, according to the suit.

According to her family, Fanning arrived at the spa on the afternoon of March 29 for an hourlong appointment. After taking a long shower, she was escorted to a tank room by the only employee working at the spa at the time. 

The female employee told police that after she escorted Fanning to the tank, she returned to the front desk. After an unspecified amount of time went by, she said she found Fanning in "a state of distress" inside the tank and believed she had swallowed some of the solution she was floating in.

The employee said she stayed with Fanning inside the tank room for "a long time" before going back to the front desk. The lawsuit says the woman didn't call 911. Instead, she called her boss, Thoma.

Thoma then called 911 at 2:37 p.m. and said a woman at the spa "fell and hit her head in a float tank" and that he was on his way to the spa from the airport. 

Paramedics arrived at the spa at 2:42 p.m. and found Fanning unconscious, not breathing and without a pulse. By their estimate, she had been in cardiac arrest for 15 minutes before their arrival and the cause of the cardiac arrest was "drowning/submersion." 

According to a report from first responders, the employee "stated that the patient yelled at her that she had fallen" and told her to call 911. So she said she went to the front desk and called her boss. But the lawsuit says she told police a different story.

She told officers that she tried to call 911 but couldn't get the call to go through on her phone. When police checked her phone records, they said there was no attempt made to call 911 from the device or from the spa's landline. 

The lawsuit says it appears that the employee did not attempt CPR on Fanning and that it is unclear whether any of the spa's employees are trained to administer CPR.

According to the suit, Fanning's vital functions "were revived through heroic efforts by the first responders and the team in the emergency department at the hospital," but she died eight days later after being removed from life support.

Medical records indicate that Fanning had aspirated so much of the solution inside the tank that she had extreme levels of magnesium in her body, the suit says.

Lyons said Fanning's death was the result of a health industry that has flown under the radar of governmental regulations.

"It's what happens when you have an unregulated, dangerous enterprise," he said. "There is no governing body that says what the governmental requirements are for these things. The industry as a whole has resisted any sort of regulatory oversight."

Lyons said spas such as The Float Spot aren't required to have employees trained in CPR or to go through inspections to ensure the electric tanks filled with water are safe. 

Fanning isn't the only person to die in a spa flotation tank. 

In April, a 28-year-old biotech engineer was found dead in one of the tanks at a spa in Washington, D.C. His cause of death is unknown. 

Copyright 2018 The Dallas Morning News

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