Sullivan County settles lawsuits for $60,000

J. H. Osborne • Apr 8, 2007 at 10:39 AM

BLOUNTVILLE - Sullivan County officials have agreed after mediation to settle two lawsuits rather than go to court.

Together the settlements will cost the county about $60,000.

One lawsuit was the result of an 8-year-old girl falling on an improvised waterslide - a piece of plastic stretched on the ground with water and soap suds - at a county elementary school's end-of-year "field day."

The other came after a tree fell on a campsite at county-operated Observation Knob Park on South Holston Lake - trapping a mother and her 5-year-old daughter during a summer thunderstorm.

Both events occurred in 2004, said County Attorney Dan Street.

He met with the Sullivan County Commission's Executive Committee to talk about the lawsuits last week. The group has the full commission's authority to negotiate in such lawsuits, and agreed to settlement terms recommended by Street, who represented the county during mediation of the two cases.

The first case involving the student falling during field day went to mediation a few weeks ago, Street said.

"One of the events that they had was they got this big sheet of plastic and made a slip and slide," Street said. "They put soap on the slip and slide. The water wasn't enough, they had to put soap on it."

Students were told not to stand up on the slide, Street said, but the girl stood up before she reached the end.

"Her feet flew out from under her and she fell back and slammed her head on the ground," Street said.

First aid was administered by school personnel and the girl's mother came to pick her up, Street said, and on the ride home the girl began to vomit.

"They took her to the emergency room, because they thought maybe she had a concussion," Street said.

Tests revealed only a congenital defect, Street said.

Her parents later claimed the incident caused the girl to have concentration problems, Street said, but the county's position was that the girl continued in school and teachers did not notice any changes in her.

"She was ultimately diagnosed with (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) ADHD type stuff," Street said. "And that part of the claim pretty much fell off. They were trying to attribute that, at first, to the fall. But when it was diagnosed as ADHD, obviously, falls don't cause ADHD, and they fell off that claim."

The family incurred about $8,000 in medical bills from the incident, Street said, and when mediation began they were asking for $40,000 from the county.

"We ended up settling it for $15,000," Street said.

The second case went to mediation last week, Street said.

In July 2004, two families were camping at Observation Knob Park and were being visited by additional family members who arrived by boat, Street said.

About an hour after the visitors arrived, a thunderstorm passed through the area.

A tree about 10 feet from the campsite was on the waterline of the lake and had been damaged at some point on the side nearest the water, Street said.

During mediation, experts said that side of the tree was actually dead.

The tree was blown over by wind during the storm - which damaged other buildings in the area, Street said.

When the storm hit, some members of the families from the campsite in question were at a restroom elsewhere in the park and some took refuge inside a tent, Street said.

One mother - part of the visitors who arrived by boat - was under a temporary shelter over the campsite's picnic table, Street said.

The tree pinned the woman and her daughter to the picnic table and both received injuries - the girl was airlifted to a local hospital afterward, Street said.

The family incurred about $28,000 in medical bills, Street said.

At mediation, Street said, the county took the position that the woman was partially responsible because she did not take shelter elsewhere when the storm came.

But the county also conceded it did not have a policy in place for maintenance of trees at the park, Street said.

"We had to admit we didn't even have a policy, period," Street said. "So there was some exposure there."

The family sued for $400,000.

The county agreed to settle the lawsuit for $42,500 plus pay the full $1,200 cost of mediation.

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