Friday, July 12, 2024

The Peace Corps, which has repeatedly come under scrutiny for the medical care it provides to volunteers, has agreed to pay $750,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a 24-year-old volunteer who died of undiagnosed malaria in the island nation of Comoros off the coast of East Africa.

The federal government did not admit any guilt or liability in the death of the volunteer, Bernice Heiderman of Inverness, Ill., according to a legal filing on Tuesday in Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The payment is nonetheless unusual. Under federal tort law, suing the government is a complicated and difficult process. Adam Dinnell, a lawyer for the Heiderman family, said he could find no record of any similar monetary settlements by the Peace Corps, a federal agency founded in the 1960s to spread peace and American good will around the world.

In a brief written statement, the Peace Corps said it “continues to mourn the tragic loss” of Ms. Heiderman and remained “committed to ensuring that every volunteer has a safe and successful experience.” It did not directly address the settlement and said it would have no further comment “out of respect for the family.”

Ms. Heiderman, whose story was reported in detail by The New York Times in 2020, died alone in a hotel room in January 2018 after sending text messages to her family complaining that her Peace Corps doctor had been dismissive of the health issues she was experiencing, including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The Peace Corps inspector general later documented a string of problems with her care.

“Had she received timely treatment,” the inspector general concluded, “she could have made a rapid, full recovery.”

In 2018, Congress passed legislation to improve to the medical care that the Peace Corps provides its volunteers. President Donald J. Trump signed it into law nine months after Ms. Heiderman’s death. The bill was prompted in part by a Times investigation in 2014 that detailed medical missteps leading up to the death of Nick Castle, a volunteer in China.

More recently, the Peace Corps has been sued by applicants whose invitations were rescinded for mental health reasons. That suit alleges that the group discriminated against the applicants by failing to offer reasonable accommodations.

In their wrongful-death lawsuit, filed in December 2020, the Heidermans made two major claims, according to their lawyer, Mr. Dinnell. First, he said, they accused the Peace Corps of providing what he described as “negligent medical care” in Africa. But they also faulted Peace Corps medical officials in Washington, who reviewed their daughter’s records, for failing to step in and take action.

Ms. Heiderman’s mother, Julie Heiderman, said in an interview that she and her husband were incensed by the way the Peace Corps treated them after their daughter’s death. She said officials had tried to blame her daughter, who had not been taking her medicine to prevent malaria. But the inspector general said the agency was to blame for failing to monitor whether volunteers were taking the drugs.

“They blamed Bernice for not asking if she could be tested for malaria, which was a kick in the teeth,” Mrs. Heiderman said. Of the settlement, she said: “It’s not what we wanted, but they are taking accountability for their mistakes. Although they’re not admitting them, it seems like the Peace Corps understands that they have treated us terribly.”

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