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$900,000 Message in Athlete's Death

The Lake Mission Viejo Assn. settles a suit by the family of a drowned track star. His mother hopes it will lead to better lifeguard staffing.

October 22, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The Lake Mission Viejo Assn. has agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle a wrongful-death suit filed by the family of an 18-year-old high school track star who drowned more than two years ago while swimming in the man-made lake.

The settlement for more than $900,000, reached a week before trial, should put the association and corporations "on notice" to properly train and staff lifeguards to prevent future tragedies, said Mary Green-Johnson, the mother of Victor Brown Jr.

"This doesn't bring closure; you can never bring closure on the loss of a loved one," said Green-Johnson, 38.

"But by suing for monetary compensation, it puts corporations on notice to staff enough lifeguards. Sometimes, putting them on notice can maybe save another person's life in the future."

Victor Brown, a track and football star at Narbonne High School, where he was a senior, drowned while making a 40-yard swim with his cousin to an anchored raft in the middle of the lake.

The youth, who lived in Harbor City but often visited relatives in Mission Viejo, was familiar with the lake. But he told the cousin as they swam that he was tired and didn't know if he could make it.

The boy's mother and the family's attorney pointed to several lifeguard deficiencies at the time, as noted by a national water-safety expert hired by the plaintiff.

Frank Pia, a Larchmont, N.Y., consultant, said in a deposition that it was "almost impossible" for a lifeguard in a tower on the shore of the lake to scan and monitor the area designated for swimmers, said Jon Mitchell Jackson, the family's attorney.

Pia also said that had a lifeguard been stationed at a nearby floating tower, that lifeguard would have been able to observe Brown in distress and attempt a rescue, Jackson said.

Witnesses said that Brown was dog-paddling and showing signs of distress, which should have signaled to the lifeguard that the youth should have been asked to return to shore or at least merited closer observation.

What was most tragic, Pia said, was that the drowning was easily preventable.

Attorneys for the Lake Mission Viejo Assn. did not return calls seeking comment. An official for the association declined to discuss its water-safety procedures and whether they have been modified since the 2001 drowning.

About 22,000 homeowners pay a monthly fee to maintain the private, 124-acre artificial lake and the surrounding landscape.

At 6 foot 2, Brown loved football but also had set records as a sprinter. He had been playing pickup football and basketball for most of the day with two dozen family members at a lakeside gathering.

When he began experiencing difficulty while swimming, friends and relatives who were already on the raft began screaming for help. An off-duty fire captain heard their calls while walking with his 3-year-old son, Jackson said.

The fire captain walked his son back to his wife, then ran back to where he had heard the pleas for help.

According to Jackson, the fire captain said 50 to 70 seconds elapsed before a lifeguard left the tower and took action.

The family plans to use the settlement to establish a scholarship fund in the youth's name for track athletes at Narbonne High School.

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