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Charlottesville tour company agrees to $5M settlement after child's death

A Charlottesville-based company providing educational tours of major cities has agreed to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit alleging that its negligence and fraud cost a 15-year-old boy his life.

Halting a jury trial in late January, WorldStrides agreed to pay $5 million to the family of Ryan Clifton Stokes of Andalusia, Alabama, who died in Washington, D.C., on a WorldStrides trip.

"After years of denying responsibility, WorldStrides only offered a fair settlement once a jury had heard the evidence and a verdict was imminent,” one of the family’s lawyers told The Daily Progress.

That lawyer, Joseph F. McGowin, said that the boy’s parents had relied on WorldStrides’ promise of having a doctor on call before sending the teen on a tour of the nation’s capital. But when Stokes fell ill one night at his hotel room, instead of a doctor, the company sent an unlicensed medical assistant who misdiagnosed him, McGowin said.

"Contrary to WorldStrides’ representations, no doctor was involved in the medical response," McGowin said.

Stokes was eventually airlifted to Children’s National Hospital for surgery to correct problems caused by a bowel obstruction. But, the teen died there three days later on June 8, 2018.

“Companies like WorldStrides should be held to account when they choose to put children at risk through deceptive sales tactics," McGowin said.

The trouble began around midnight on the evening of June 4, 2018, when the Stokes’ tour group was back in its hotel in suburban Maryland after a day visiting such sites as the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery.

A friend testified in a pre-trial deposition that Stokes vomited and then began to cry, holding his stomach and screaming.

One of the group’s chaperones contacted WorldStrides, which had promised customers "access to doctors who are available 24 hours a day to provide in-hotel emergency care." The company touted this "Doctors on Call" program through videos, web pages and other marketing materials.

The lawsuit, filed in Alabama’s Covington County Circuit Court, asserted that the physicians’ assistant who showed up to the hotel blamed the boy’s distress on kidney stones or a stomach bug and that instead of sending the boy to a hospital she issued "vague and non‐specific instructions" to the group’s chaperones.

"Ryan never saw a doctor as promised by WorldStrides," according to the suit. "Nor was any doctor involved in his care."

The following morning, the suit alleged, Stokes collapsed with an intestinal obstruction resulting in hypovolemic shock, a condition that deprives the heart of its ability to move blood through the body. He never regained consciousness.

"All of us at WorldStrides are heartbroken by the tragedy that occurred in 2018 and we are glad that this matter could finally be resolved for the family," WorldStrides said in a statement. "The safety and security of our travelers is, and always will be, our highest priority."

That statement was provided by Mary Callas, senior director of marketing operations, who declined to answer any further questions from The Daily Progress, even questions about the identity of the company’s current ownership.

WorldStrides was founded in Chicago in 1965 by former social studies teacher Phil Wendel, who went on to launch the Charlottesville-based ACAC chain of health and fitness clubs. Since Wendel sold his controlling interest in 1998, WorldStrides has had at least five owners, each a private equity group, including a 2011 purchase by the D.C.-based private equity firm Carlyle Group.

The latest owner appears to be the one announced in 2017 and led by Paris-based private equity firm Eurazeo with China’s Primavera Capital. In announcing that purchase, the buyers proclaimed that WorldStrides was then enjoying a 13% profit margin — not counting taxes, depreciation and debt service.

In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, WorldStrides reported serving about 550,000 students and generating an annual revenue of about $650 million. In November of that year, WorldStrides announced that it had completed the purchase of an array of smaller travel companies, including World Class Vacations, Brightspark, Jumpstreet and Educatours.

The timing of the purchase turned out not to be optimal, as just four months later travel and transportation ground to a halt as a pandemic swept the globe. The firm, reportedly America’s largest educational travel company at the time, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July 2020.

Papers filed in that bankruptcy case show that much of the debt the company had amassed were loans from prior sellers. With an infusion of additional loans, the firm, which still uses the original name Wendel gave the company, Lakeland Tours, emerged in late 2020 with a reorganization approved by the federal bankruptcy court of the Southern District of New York.

Following the lawsuit, WorldStrides appears to have altered the language of its "Doctors on Call" program. It now promises a call center "staffed by EMTs who facilitate access to physicians and Advanced Practice Providers" based at the emergency medicine department at the George Washington University.

"Through telehealth consultation," reads the new language, "medical professionals are available to evaluate health-related concerns and make recommendations for treatment accordingly."

According to a knowledgable source, WorldStrides informed employees on Feb. 29 that the company had laid off a group of employees earlier that day. CEO David Kirchhoff, who lives in Austin, Texas, told those who remained that the number of people released was "north of 50."

Callas, the spokeswoman, declined to address the layoff announcement.

Six months before he died, according to a family member quoted in his hometown newspaper, Stokes filled out a donor card that allowed his kidneys to be donated and his heart to be given to a 12-year-old girl in New Jersey.


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