Swim club found negligent in death

Jury awards kin $760,000 in Balto. County drowning of woman, 24, in quarry

October 10, 2002|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A popular Baltimore County swim club was negligent two years ago when ill-equipped lifeguards responded slowly to cries for help after a 24-year-old competitive swimmer disappeared, and later drowned, in the deep waters of its quarry, a county Circuit Court jury decided yesterday.

Jamee Eben's parents, aunt and sisters watched as the jury foreman announced that the Beaver Dam Swimming Club must pay Eben's estate and parents $760,000 - an amount less than the Ebens had asked for in their lawsuit, but more than enough, they said, to send a message that the swim club should strengthen its safety regulations.

"There's nothing happy about this," said Marilyn J. Eben, the drowning victim's mother, after the verdict was read. "But we've accomplished what we've been trying to do for two years. So nobody else has to go through this."

Ellen H. Herwig, the owner of the Cockeysville swim club, was not in court yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Herwig's attorney, Deborah M. Whelihan, said her client was "devastated" by the lawsuit's allegations and the jury's verdict, which came after a week-long trial and a day of deliberations.

"I think [Eben's death] was just an accident," Whelihan said. "I guess in today's society we can't have accidents without somebody to blame."

She said her clients had not decided whether they would appeal.

In court, Whelihan argued that the club's lifeguards and management acted properly on July 2, 2000, after Eben's boyfriend yelled that his girlfriend had disappeared while swimming in the quarry.

She said there was scant chance anyone could have rescued Eben, who had slipped under the water unseen and without a struggle. She also said Eben was partly to blame for her own death because before swimming she had taken pain medication that could have made her drowsy.

"This quarry is big and deep, and when you swim in it, you know that," Whelihan said.

But the Ebens' attorney, Margaret M. McKee, argued that the swim club should have had an appropriate emergency response plan and sufficient rescue equipment, and that lifeguards were responsible for protecting swimmers.

The Beaver Dam staff, she alleged, made misstep after negligent misstep.

"There was no warning: `Beware, our lifeguards aren't going to do a damn thing if you go under the water,'" McKee said in closing arguments.

Eben, who once swam with the elite North Baltimore Aquatic Center and for one year captained the University of Maryland Baltimore County swim team, submerged somewhere between the shore and a raft anchored in the quarry.

Her boyfriend, Greg Matulevich, said he yelled immediately to a lifeguard that Eben was missing in the water. He and other witnesses said the club's staff did little for the next 20 minutes except tell Eben's frantic friends that she had probably left the water elsewhere.

Marilyn Eben testified that when she arrived at the quarry after learning her daughter was missing, the club's manager told her not to worry because "we lose people here every day."

McKee said the Ebens decided to file a lawsuit only after they learned Beaver Dam had not altered its safety procedures after their daughter's death. They filed it July 5 of last year, the day after another drowning in the quarry.

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