- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa’s executive branch has agreed to pay $390,000 to a couple injured along with their child when a large tree fell on their tent at a state park, according to documents released Monday.

The payment will settle a lawsuit alleging the Iowa Department of Natural Resources was negligent in failing to remove the diseased, 98-foot cottonwood tree from the perimeter of the campsite at Lake Manawa State Park in Council Bluffs. A district judge approved the settlement last month and the State Appeal Board was expected to give it final approval Monday afternoon.

Heavy winds caused the tree to fall on a tent where Alecia Nichols, 23; Timothy Hiers, Jr., 25; and 3-year-old Timothy Hiers III were sleeping in May 2012. All three required serious medical attention for their injuries.

Nichols suffered the most serious, including a skull fracture and brain hemorrhage, a crushed pelvis and several fractured vertebrae. She lost hearing in one ear, underwent at least four surgeries, still suffers daily pain and is physically limited. Her boyfriend suffered a lacerated spleen and injuries to his lungs, shoulder, chest and ribs that prompted him to miss a month of work. Their child suffered a lacerated spleen and fractured pelvis, and has slowly recovered.

Their attorney, Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said having a tree so close to a campsite that was large and obviously diseased “created an unreasonable risk of harm to people who were camping.”

“When you run a state park and have people sleeping in tents, it’s important to make sure there aren’t hazards for guests at the park,” he said.

He said the settlement would allow his clients, who live in Council Bluffs, to pay medical bills and receive some compensation for lost income and their suffering. The deal avoids a trial that had been scheduled in March. The settlement includes $325,000 for Nichols, $45,000 for Timothy Hiers, Jr. and $20,000 for their child.

Lawyers for the state, who contended the incident was caused by the weather and unforeseeable, did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins said park employees stepped up their focus on dangerous trees after the 2011 death of a 31-year-old camper hit by a limb at Lake MacBride State Park. He said visual inspections focus on campgrounds, trails, parking lots and other places where people typically gather.

The agency recently closed an ATV park in Council Bluffs after identifying several flood-damaged cottonwood trees that pose a risk and need to be removed, he said.

“We’ve been trying to do a good job of getting out there and looking to see where the potential hazards may be,” he said. “It definitely has been on the radar.”

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