Peace Corps, criticized for medical care, settles wrongful-death lawsuit for $750,000

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 East African island nation of Comoros.

The federal government has not admitted any fault or responsibility for the death of the volunteer, Bernice Heiderman of Inverness, Illinois, according to a legal filing Tuesday in the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The payment is unusual though. Under federal tort law, suing the government is a complicated and difficult process. Adam Dinnell, an attorney for the Heiderman family, said he could find no record of similar monetary settlements from the Peace Corps, a federal agency established in the 1960s to spread peace and American goodwill around the world.

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

Ms. Heiderman, whose story was detailed 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 dismissed her health problems. including headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The Peace Corps inspector general later documented a number of problems with her care.

“If she had received timely treatment,” the inspector general concluded“she was able to recover quickly and completely.”

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

More recently, the Peace Corps has been sued by applicants whose invitations were withdrawn for mental health reasons. That lawsuit alleges 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 attorney, Mr. Dinnel. First, he said, they accused the Peace Corps of providing what he described as “negligent medical care” in Africa. But they also blamed Peace Corps medical officers in Washington, D.C., who reviewed their daughter’s records, for not stepping in and taking action.

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

“They blamed Bernice for not asking if she could be tested for malaria, which was a kick in the teeth,” Ms. Heiderman said. She said of the settlement: “It’s not what we wanted, but they are taking responsibility for their mistakes. Even though they don’t receive them, the Peace Corps seems to understand that they treated us terribly.”

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