A boy drowned during a Steilacoom summer camp. Now, the town will pay $15M

The town of Steilacoom has settled for $15 million a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of a 13-year-old boy who drowned while at a town summer camp in 2022, according to an attorney representing the family.

Darrell “DJ” McCutcheon, Jr., died July 15, 2022, while attempting to swim toward a platform 30 to 40 feet from shore at Anderson Island’s Lowell Johnson Park, also known as the Old Swimming Hole. DJ, who had never swum in open water, was participating in the town program when he was left unsupervised, the lawsuit said.

The suit, filed in February 2023 and also on behalf of DJ’s estate, alleged gross negligence against the town.

“Summer camps engaged in supervising children have an enhanced and solemn duty of reasonable care to protect their campers from foreseeable harms,” the complaint said.

The case was settled April 30 before it could go to trial, according to a filing in Pierce County Superior Court. It won’t be finalized formally until the settlement funds are received. Attorney Brett Rosen, who is representing the plaintiffs, said this week that he expected the case would be resolved within the next 30 days.

Rosen told The News Tribune that the suit had been settled for $15 million.

“It was never about the money for my clients,” he said in an interview. “This truly is one of those cases where, and one of the losses that, the community — not just the McCutcheon family, but the community — will suffer from not being able to see this bright, beautiful soul contribute to civilization. It’s a heartbreaking case.”

Steilacoom town administrator Paul Loveless, who acted as the town’s point of contact in the litigation, said he couldn’t comment on the settlement because the final dismissal paperwork hadn’t yet been entered, so the case was still considered to be ongoing.

Attorneys representing the town denied allegations in court and unsuccessfully sought to dismiss the parents’ claims in their entirety. In a court filing, the town noted that DJ’s mother had signed a waiver and release form that acknowledged both parents understood, accepted and assumed the risks, including death, involved in their child being around water and water activities.

“The function of a liability waiver is to ‘deny an injured party the right to recover damages from the person negligently causing the injury,’” the filing said, citing case law.

Judge Stanley Rumbaugh issued a significant ruling in March.

Rumbaugh found that duty and breach — two elements necessary to prove a negligence claim — had been established in the case. Rosen told The News Tribune that the ruling, which would have given a jury fewer issues to decide, meant the town was negligent and helped push the lawsuit toward resolution.

The incident

DJ and his parents arrived in the South Sound from out of state in 2019. At the time, his parents were serving in the Army and were stationed at Joint Base-Lewis McChord. DJ’s mother, Tamicia McCutcheon, heard about the town’s summer camp through a friend in the summer 2022 and signed up her son.

Court records offered a glimpse into what occurred at Lowell Johnson Park.

Roughly 20 campers went by ferry to Anderson Island on July 15, 2022. One group consisted of kids aged 13 to 15, including DJ, and the other group was younger. A camp counselor drove the older group by van roughly 2.5 miles from the ferry terminal to the swimming area while a second counselor stayed behind with the younger group.

The counselor who drove the older campers walked the group to an area away from the water and, before returning to retrieve the younger group, instructed the campers not to get in or go near the water while he was away, according to a court filing from the town’s attorneys.

An expert hired by the town testified that the counselor was gone for an estimated 10 to 11 minutes, court records show.

Three boys, including DJ, entered the water while the counselor was away. The two other boys were strong swimmers and made it to a dock they intended to reach but DJ went underwater and drowned, according to a filing from the plaintiff’s attorneys. He was retrieved by bystanders after about five minutes but had suffered a severe anoxic injury and was pronounced dead at a hospital.

The lawsuit criticized the circumstances in place that day, saying it was a violation of camp policy to leave campers unsupervised.

The camp only provided a single van that couldn’t fit both groups of campers, and the camp intended for a third counselor to accompany the groups on the trip but couldn’t find one, according to the suit. The complaint also said that the counselor who drove the van had no knowledge of the camp participants’ swimming abilities, didn’t provide life jackets and had been aware there were no lifeguards at the Old Swimming Hole.

Rosen told The News Tribune that DJ was the McCutcheons’ only child and that they struggled for many years to conceive. On Tuesday, they accepted his eighth-grade diploma at Salish Middle School during a graduation ceremony that Rosen said was largely dedicated to the boy’s memory.

The settlement amount, he added, spoke to the major loss that the world had suffered.

DJ’s parents, Tamicia and Darrell McCutcheon, Sr., now live out of state. They started a nonprofit called United Mothers Adjusting Summer Camps that aims to ensure there are no more victims of child care neglect, according to Rosen. Still in its infancy stages, the nonprofit seeks to bring education and accountability to day cares and camps. It also plans to provide scholarships in DJ’s name to students who hold like-minded interests as their son did. He loved science, Rosen said.

“They want to use DJ’s story as a springboard,” he said.