A wrongful death and police negligence lawsuit has been filed against the city and county governments in Billings, Montana, over the death of a 27-year-old woman who was killed when a teenager crashed into her car while fleeing at least seven police vehicles.
The lawsuit, filed last month in Yellowstone County District Court, alleges that city police officers and county deputies violated their own pursuit policies while chasing a drunken teenager in April 2008. The police chase ended with the death of Lillian Stahl, a nurse who was struck and killed by the drunk driver on her way to work. Stahl’s brother, Arnie Stahl, filed the wrongful death lawsuit, naming the Billings Police Department and the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office as defendants.
The complaint alleges that officers violated policies that were established to protect the public from potentially deadly accidents. According to a report by the Billings Gazette, the pursuit policies of both county and city departments state that police should not chase subjects over minor misdemeanors, police should not chase subjects while driving unmarked cars, and that there should be no more than two patrol cars involved in any chase.
Stahl’s brother claims that the chase was started when a police officer in an unmarked car spotted a teenager driving erratically. Although the officer was able to obtain a license plate number and partial identification, a police chase ensued involving seven cars from the city and county police departments.
Following the fatal crash, the police departments allegedly attempted to cover up the chase, realizing that pursuit policies had been violated. However, recorded police radio conversation, testimony and other information allegedly contradict police accounts of the events leading to Stahl’s death.
Since the mid-1990s, police departments nationwide have struggled with policies on when police should pursue fleeing suspects, due to the potential risk to the public. According to a recent report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), there is an extremely wide variety of police chase policies in place nationwide to avoid automobile accidents, but many of those policies include stipulations that police officers should not pursue drivers for misdemeanor offenses, or should avoid any pursuits unless it’s clear that lives are at risk if officers do not pursue.
The IACP began recommending such policies after it released a report in 1998 on police pursuit crashes, finding that most crashes during such pursuits occurred in the first two minutes of the crash, and that many accidents and fatalities were at the hands of minor offenders who did not need to be aggressively pursued.