Iowa to pay $2.1M to sergeant who lost her son

RYAN J. FOLEY Associated Press Published:

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- The state of Iowa has agreed to pay $2.1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by an Ohio woman whose son died from injuries suffered from nearly drowning during a camp operated by the University of Northern Iowa in Germany, records show.

The settlement ends seven years of litigation between Cleveland-area mother Vinnell Griffen and state lawyers defending Camp Adventure, a program in which college students are sent overseas to run camps for children of U.S. military personnel. Griffen was an Army sergeant based in Germany in 2003 when her 10-year-old son, Blake Jermon, participated in one of its sports camps.

During an outing to a crowded municipal swimming pool, Camp Adventure employees lost track of Jermon, said Griffen's attorney, Pressley Henningsen of Cedar Rapids. He said German students eventually found him on the bottom of the pool and pulled him out, but nobody knows how he got there. Jermon suffered severe brain and spinal injuries and had to use a wheelchair. He died from complications during a 2006 surgery required to correct problems related to his injuries.

"It was a mother's worst nightmare," Henningsen said. "I'm glad we reached an amicable resolution that to me has a measure of fairness. You can't ever make up for what happened to Blake. But you can try to fix it. I think this settlement does that, and I'm happy for my client and I'm happy for Camp Adventure. I think they do a lot of good things. This can only make them better."

Under the settlement, the state will make a lump sum payment to Griffen for $2.1 million. The state also agreed to take over responsibility for an Army lien covering the cost of Jermon's medical care, which Henningsen said was $1.7 million. Griffen and the state agreed to work together to try to persuade the Army to reduce or waive those costs.

Griffen filed the lawsuit in 2005 alleging the state was negligent in failing to manage the Camp Adventure program, failing to properly train and supervise employees, and failing to watch Jermon.

The case reached the Iowa Supreme Court in 2009, when justices ruled that state law did allow lawsuits against state employees for injuries that happen in other countries. A judge had earlier granted a state motion to dismiss the case, ruling the Iowa Tort Claims Act did not extend past U.S. borders.

Henningsen said the settlement was reached to avoid a trial that had been scheduled to begin in February. He said the deal closes "a very horrific chapter" in the life of Griffen, who has retired from the Army and has two college-age daughters, and will allow her to focus on the future.

"She's a wonderful woman and so are her daughters, and she handled it all with a lot of grace. I think that helped us reach a resolution here," Henningsen said. "Not only did she have to be willing to compromise, but the state recognized a wonderful mother, a wonderful family, and I think that plays a role in any case. The things that she did to take care of her son after this incident were amazing."

The state did not admit wrongdoing under the settlement, which has been accepted by a judge and approved by the State Appeal Board.

Thousands of university students have participated in Camp Adventure since its founding in 1984, according to its website, at sites around the world. A program employee referred a request for comment to UNI, where a spokesperson did not immediately return a message. A spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General's Office, which defended the state against the lawsuit, had no immediate comment.

Henningsen said he believed the case had improved Camp Adventure's oversight of employees and children.

"It's an important case which reiterates some basic, fundamental principles that are captured by our law," Henningsen said. "If you are going to agree to watch children, you need to watch them."