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State pays parents of Iowa State student who died in Crew Club rowing accident $2M
Parents of other club member who died sue state, school
The State of Iowa on Monday agreed to pay $2 million to settle a “wrongful death” claim with the family of an Iowa State University student who died last year in a Crew Club accident after the group “failed to follow critical health and safety procedures.”
That settlement, approved Monday by the State Board of Appeals, came one month after the parents of a second student who died in that March 28, 2021 accident sued ISU for “recklessly and negligently” allowing an activity that precipitated the “entirely preventable” deaths.
“Shockingly, prior to the March 28 water practice, ISU and its leadership received both specific and general warnings that the Crew Club was operating without basic safety equipment and training, were aware that the Crew Club was not in compliance with numerous ISU and other safety requirements, and were explicitly warned by a student on the Crew Club — more than a full year before the March 28 water practice — that if ISU did not properly address the unresolved Crew Club safety issues, ‘It wouldn’t take much for someone [on the Crew Club] to get seriously hurt,’” according to the lawsuit that Eric and Sarah Ben-David filed Nov. 1 against ISU, the state, and three club administrators.
The couple’s son, Yaakov Ben-David, 20, of Washington, D.C., and Derek Nanni, 19, of Normal, Ill. died when their boat capsized in windy conditions during their first-ever water exercise on Little Wall Lake in Hamilton County. Before that day, the two students never had held a rowing oar on open water, according to the lawsuit.
State settlement documents show Audra Zabava and Daniel Nanni filed a wrongful death claim with the state in August 2021 on behalf of their son, Derek, and the Iowa Attorney General this month recommended the $2 million settlement.
The Ben-Davids also filed claims with the state, but because the Iowa Attorney General’s Office hadn’t made a final disposition as of October, the couple withdrew their claims and sued instead.
Crew participants 'can’t back out,’ email said
The couple in their lawsuit not only referenced an independent investigation of the accident that found emergency policies and protocols lacked and safety guidelines were ignored, but they accuse the club of misrepresenting its compliance to USRowing, with which it was affiliated.
“Prior to the March 28 water practice, ISU represented to USRowing that its Crew Club was in compliance with USRowing’s safety rules and regulations, even though ISU and its leadership knew that that was in fact not true,” according to the lawsuit, which goes to great lengths to show ISU exerted “substantial” responsibility, supervision, oversight, and control over the club’s operations.
Yaakov Ben-David was an ISU sophomore who his parents described as “exceptionally kind,” well-liked, and “a brilliant and truly extraordinary student full of promise.” He graduated from his Washington, D.C. school as valedictorian and had continued earning a 4.0 at ISU.
In early 2021, just before his death, he took the Law School Admission Test and scored in the 99.8 percentile, backing his parents’ argument he would have “made important and valuable contributions to society.”
Ben-David also joined the Crew Club in early 2021 and received an email March 15 that members would be getting on the water for the first time March 28 at Little Wall Lake — although Ben-David hadn’t held an oar on open water in his life.
The club’s student president in the email said they’d only cancel the water practice for “wind or thunder/lightning” and participants “can’t back out” once they sign up, according to the lawsuit.
Club member’s last words: ‘I am sorry guys’
The morning of the practice, the club president texted a veteran rower regarding 15 mph winds that could be “OK, or it might not be.” They deemed the water “rowable,” though “not perfect,” according to the lawsuit, accusing ISU of failing to provide club leaders with training and equipment to “properly determine if the air, water, and wind conditions were safe for rowing.”
The National Weather Service that day reported winds at the lake between 13 and 20 mph — with gusts up to 25 mph — and temperatures between 32 and 36F. Those conditions were “not safe for rowing,” according to the club’s constitution and USRowing’s safety rules, the lawsuit reports.
Because neither ISU nor club leaders offered training on what to wear while rowing in cold weather, Ben-David wore a jean jacket and shorts and Nanni wore a T-shirt and shorts, according to the lawsuit. Before heading out, a fellow club member said, “It might be cold now, but you are going to enjoy rowing so much you won’t even remember that you’re cold.”
The team began the process of setting off about 9 a.m., wading into the water up to midcalf and putting oars into oarlocks. The temperature was about 34F at that time, and the water was 45F, with wind gusts up to 29 mph, according to the Department of Natural Resources, the lawsuit said.
“Because the combined air and water temperature was 79 degrees Fahrenheit, rowing was prohibited under USRowing’s safety requirements,” which bars rowing when combined air and water temperatures are under 90 degrees.
Once on the water, a more experienced member told the club president “it was getting bad” and “they should go in,” but the president said she wanted Nanni and Ben-David to have a chance to row before coming in, according to the lawsuit.
Nanni rowed for about 30 seconds when at 9:23 the boat “wobbled significantly” to one side, capsized and pitched everyone into the water in the middle of the lake, the lawsuit reported. The club president suggested flipping the boat, but other experienced rowers said they should swim for shore — despite USRowing safety rules warning to never leave their flotation device.
Before they started swimming back, another club member heard Ben-David say, “I am sorry guys,” according to the lawsuit.
“Sadly, those were Yaakov’s last known words,” the lawsuit reported. “After making the decision to attempt to swim to the shore, the crew split up, each trying to swim to safety.”
Ben-David and Nanni drowned trying to get back, and those who made it back suffered hypothermia and other injuries, according to the lawsuit.
Unaware of the drownings and hypothermic club members, the coach at 10:14 canceled an upcoming 11 a.m. practice “due to wind and wind chill conditions.”
The parents accused Iowa State and three officials of failing to properly respond to the 2020 warning; provide the Crew Club with basic safety equipment and training; and sufficient resources to make that happen.
Crew Club members told investigators, among other things, “ISU’s lack of support is the sole reason that the Crew Club does not have a functioning launch or dock.”
Both internal and external investigations into the accident found ISU and club leadership failures, and Iowa State in response formed a “sports clubs review committee” that developed recommendations — including rules to reduce the number of “high-risk” clubs.
Iowa State suspended the Crew Club’s activities pending a broader risk assessment, and spokeswoman Angie Hunt told The Gazette this week the club has “volunteered to end all water and outside activity and refocus activity strictly on inside machine-based virtual rowing.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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