$400K Settlement in Montana Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over Fatal Crash

May 9, 2012

The family of a Billings, Mont., nurse who was killed by a drunken driver while he was fleeing from authorities reached a $400,000 settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and Yellowstone County, an attorney said.

The settlement with the family of Lillian Stahl was reached Friday, said attorney Chris Edwards, who represents the family.

The city and county will each pay the family $200,000, The Billings Gazette reported. A trial had been scheduled to start Tuesday.

“They’re very satisfied with the settlement,” Edwards said.

The lawsuit filed by Lillian’s brother, Arnie Stahl, argued that police officers and sheriff’s deputies violated their pursuit policies in chasing Brian Houston after an off-duty officer saw him hit a garbage can and a pickup truck early on April 18, 2008.

“There was no admission of liability and the city continues to maintain that the tragic death of Lillian Stahl” was solely the result of “the criminal conduct of Brian Houston,” said Brendon Rohan, an attorney hired by the city’s insurance company.

Yellowstone County Deputy Attorney Kevin Gillen said Houston killed Stahl, but county officials thought it was in the best interest of the taxpayers to find a resolution.

“We hope the settlement we’ve agreed to can bring some kind of closure to the Stahl family, because she truly was an innocent victim,” Gillen said.

Houston, who was 17 at the time, was tried as an adult and is serving a 20-year prison term for negligent vehicular homicide for the crash that killed Stahl, 27.

The lawsuit claimed the chase never should have taken place and the two law enforcement agencies provided a “blatantly false” account of the events to the public.

The lawsuit alleged a police sergeant driving an unmarked patrol car saw Houston crash into a garbage can and a pickup truck. He began to follow the car, even though department policy prohibits unmarked cars from engaging in pursuits except in extreme circumstances, the lawsuit alleged.

A sheriff’s captain who was driving to work joined the pursuit after overhearing the officer’s radio calls. They were joined by other officers and deputies, some responding at high speeds from miles away.

A news release on the crash said the captain had called off the chase several blocks before Houston ran a red light and struck Stahl’s car. The lawsuit alleged that deputies and police continued to chase Houston into the intersection where the fatal crash occurred.

Billings police put a new policy into effect in February 2010 that prohibited law enforcement from chasing suspects for minor traffic violations and required police to end pursuits after just a few blocks. Police Chief Rich St. John said the new policy was not a response to the lawsuit.

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