By Bob Allen
A North American Mission Board student missionary paralyzed in a 2009 rollover crash has been awarded $26 million in a settlement with the Southern Baptist Convention entity’s insurers.
Lawyers representing 27-year-old Jeremy Vangsnes — an All-American collegiate distance runner before suffering brain injuries that rendered him a quadriplegic during a 10-week recreational mission assignment at Yellowstone National Park — said insurance companies agreed to pay their full insurance policy limits after a Montana state judge ruled that the car’s driver was acting within the course and scope of his NAMB assignment when the wreck occurred.
Vangsnes, 21, a rising senior at Coastal Carolina University from Cowpens, S.C., was traveling with his brothers Ryan, 19, and Daniel, 23, in a Jeep Cherokee driven by Scott Minear, 20-year-old junior at the University of Georgia from Marietta, Ga., in a return trip from Glacier National Park on July 21, 2009. Witnesses said near Belgrade, Mont., the vehicle drifted off Interstate 90 onto the grass, overcorrected and then rolled several times before stopping in the median.
All four were injured, and Jeremy Vangses most critically. After initially being reported dead at the scene, he was flown to St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings and later transferred to long-term care.
Personal injury lawyer Alexander Blewett III in Great Falls, Mont., said the award will allow Vangsnes’ father, who serves as Jeremy’s full-time caregiver, to hire 24-hour skilled nursing care and buy a house that is more handicapped accessible.
“Nothing will undo the tragedy that robbed this talented young man of his future,” Anders Blewett said in a media release. “But this money will allow Jeremy to live the fullest life possible.”
Blewett said the $26 million settlement, the largest in state history, is not considered an admission of guilt by NAMB, domestic mission agency of the nation’s second largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
On June 19, however, District Judge Mike Salvagni of Gallatin County ruled the agency was liable for Vangsnes’ injuries.
The four men, serving as self-funded “Innovator” student missionaries over the summer, were returning on an eight-hour drive after meeting with members of the Vangsnes family. While not allowed to go home unless there is an emergency, testimony at the trial indicated the missionaries got permission from a leader, carried on with their Christian witness during the trip and were expected to represent Southern Baptists in their lifestyle even during off times.
Dennis Culbreth, senior assistant to then NAMB President Geoff Hammond, flew to Montana immediately after hearing of the accident. Morris Chapman, then president of the SBC Executive Committee, happened to be vacationing nearby and visited the hospital in Billings after learning of the accident on his Blackberry.
NAMB set up a special fund for both families. The Vangsnes’ home church, First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., also established a fund for the family.
Mark Vangsnes, Jeremy’s father, described support his family received from both their home church and Southern Baptists in Montana as “unreal” in an interview with the Baptist Courier a month after the wreck.
Minear’s mother, a member of SBC-affiliated Crosspointe Community Church in Roswell, Ga., said her family was “awestruck” by “how quickly so many people from so many avenues — the Southern Baptist Convention, NAMB, local churches — responded.”
“Churches here are ministering to us with their presence, with food, drinks, places to stay,” Tammy Minear told the South Carolina Baptist state newspaper. “All the prayers have been so felt…. [W]e have been constantly aware of people praying for us. We feel like we’re wrapped up not only in God’s arms, but in the arms of people around the world, who are praying for us.”