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Trooper, Illinois Facing $24 Million Lawsuit in Death of Teen Sisters

Posted by Jane Akre
Monday, May 12, 2008 3:43 PM EST
Category: On The Road, Major Medical, Protecting Your Family
Tags: Dangerous Driving, Police Pursuits, Motor Vehicle Accidents, Police Misconduct, Wrongful Death, Automobiles and Other Vehicles, Auto Accidents

Teen sisters are killed by a trooper going over 100 mph. A 24 Million lawsuit has been filed against the state and the trooper.

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IMAGE SOURCE: Courtesy: AttorneyTom Keefe/ Uhl Mazda

 

A $24 million lawsuit has been filed in the Illinois State Police Trooper crash that killed two sisters.

The mother of the teenage girls, Kimberly Dorsey, says the wrongful-death suit is about holding the officer and the state responsible and accountable for the crash. The suit charges the state of Illinois and State Police Trooper Matt Mitchell.    

Her attorney, Thomas Q. Keefe says it was his choice to seek $12 million for each girl.

In March, a St. Clair County grand jury indicted Mitchell on two counts of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving.

Last November, sisters Jessica, 18 and Kelli Uhl, age 13, were killed when 30-year old Trooper Matt Mitchell, cross the median of I-64, just east of St. Louis and hit the sisters’ Mazda head-on. They were killed instantly.

The jury found that Trooper Mitchell was traveling 126 mph in his police-issued 2006 Impala just before the crash.  The officer was responding to an accident that was already resolved about 15 minutes away and was reportedly “multi-tasking,” talking on the cell phone and the shoulder radio at the same time.

Jessica Uhl was a student at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. Kelli was an eight-grader. The girls had just attended a holiday photo session at their grandmother’s home. They were reported to be best friends.  

Attorney Thomas Q. Keefe says the lawsuit was filed, in part, to find out what happened moments before the deaths.

“What really drove me nuts about this case first and foremost was the Illinois State Police were so arrogant to believe they could investigate themselves,” he tells IB News.

Keefe says the state owes his clients the truth instead of what he calls a “white wash” of the accident during which they blamed the collision on, what Keefe calls a “phantom” white car that caused Trooper Mitchell to go out of control.

Keefe says the speed the trooper was traveling only became apparent when information was down loaded from the car’s black box.  Also not clear is why his car’s video camera was not operating moments before the collision. 

Keefe says when the attempt to obfuscate the truth didn’t work the Illinois State Police decided to “throw Trooper Mitchell under the bus.”

“He bears responsibility but the Illinois State troopers do as well.”

An accident reconstruction expert finds that the trooper was traveling 102 mph at the time of impact and the girls were traveling at 65 mph.

But the accident report detailing the crash and the speed was never handed over to the public.  The impact literally drove the police cruiser through the sisters’ car.

Additionally, Mitchell had been told the accident he was responding to was already under control and the injured passenger was in the ambulance.

This is not the first incident for Trooper Mitchell.  A case previously was settled against him for $1.7 million and he was involved in two previous on duty crashes.

Mitchell reportedly last received high-speed driving training in 2001 when he was in the State Police Academy. There cadets take 26 weeks of courses before becoming troopers. After that, all of their driving training is on the road.  

Ron Kelley says that’s not surprising. He is a retired deputy sheriff from Osceola County, Florida who goes around the country training officers how to drive in emergency situations, or when not to pursue, an even more important lesson.

He says he gets the call from law enforcement after an accident or an officer is injured. “It’s reactive” he tells IB News.

Following the Uhl case, Kelley asked a police chief friend from Illinois how much training in emergency vehicle operations is mandated for the troopers after they leave the academy.

“His email was short, ‘we are currently reviewing that for revisions,’ ” Kelley says he was told. While officers receive refresher training in weapons, the fact that they drive for a living is often thought to be enough training.

“Who trains you to drive 126 mph?” he asks. 

“Ideally, the bare minimum is you put them through a reoccurring training once a year for eight hours and show them the devastating videos of people seriously injured. It kinds of get their attention,” Kelley says.  

In Illinois as in many other states, there are no specific guidelines as to how fast officers can travel in pursuit of the public good- the speed limit is dictated by the situation.

Trooper Mitchell has pled not guilty to the two charges of reckless homicide as well as two charges of reckless driving filed in connection with injuries received by a Fayetteville couple who were hurt in the same collision. 

But the case will not go before a jury. Because the claim is against the state, the lawsuit will be heard before the Illinois Court of Claims.   Seven justices, appointed by the governor will listen to the evidence. 

A pre-trial conference is set for next month.  Each homicide count carries up to five years in prison and reckless driving counts up to three years.  #


2 Comments

Anonymous User
Posted by David
Wednesday, May 14, 2008 8:59 AM EST

“Ideally, the bare minimum is you put them through a reoccurring training once a year for eight hours and show them the devastating videos of people seriously injured. It kinds of get their attention,” Kelley says.

Anonymous User
Posted by Dave
Wednesday, May 14, 2008 9:05 AM EST

The above quote is ridiculous. The State Police respond to serious injury and fatal crashes every day. Having their troopers sit thru a training class "showing them the devastating videos of people seriously injured" would be a waste of time. They could probably bring their own videos with them. What's needed is training provided by experts in high speed vehicle control, as well as recurring training in when to drive at high speed. I'm sure only a very small fraction would actually need training to know when they should drive fast, but there are always a few in any large group who don't seem to be able to follow written policy.

Comments for this article are closed.

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