The Missouri Supreme Court is deliberating on whether high-ranking
De Soto Police officers can be held liable in a 2018 high-speed chase that ended with a crash and the death of a 16-year-old De Soto girl, Lillian Flath.
Attorneys representing Sgt. Dirk Helms and former Police Chief Joe Edwards argued before the Supreme Court March 30 that the two should be dismissed from a wrongful death suit brought by the girl’s father, Lonnie Decker of De Soto.
Decker filed the civil suit in April 2020 against the city of De Soto, Helms, Edwards, De Soto Police officers David Krassinger and Adam Schuler, and
De Soto residents Anthony Santiago and Evan Trigg, who were involved in the three-vehicle accident.
The case seeks at least $25,000 in damages against each defendant.
Schuler, who later was dismissed from the civil suit, still is employed by the De Soto Police Department, and Helms is still a sergeant in the department. Krassinger no longer works for the department.
Edwards’ resignation as the city’s police chief was effective July 27, 2018, less than seven months after he started the job on Feb. 19, 2018. Acccording to court documents, he now lives in Reno, Nev.
The wrongful death civil suit, which is ongoing, is being heard by Div. 1 Circuit Judge Joe Rathert.
The case before the Supreme Court is an appeal of Rathert’s ruling in the suit that Edwards and Helms should not be dismissed as defendants.
Attorneys for the two contend that Edwards and Helms were not involved in the incident that led to the accident and Flath’s death. The attorneys also say the two should be protected under the public duty and official immunity legal doctrines, essentially arguing that they should not be held liable for performing duties required under their jobs.
De Soto City Manager Todd Melkus said he could not comment on the ongoing litigation, other than to verify the employment of the four officers named in the suit.
The accident in which Flath was killed occurred on May 22, 2018, on South Second Street at Amvets Drive in De Soto.
According to court documents and a Missouri State Highway Patrol report, Krassinger received a report about a suspicious vehicle parked with its headlights off in Woodlawn Cemetery, described in court documents as “a known hangout for minors, teenagers, and local children of the high school age.”
Krassinger approached the 2003 Oldsmobile Alero with the patrol vehicle’s spotlight and takedown lights on, according to reports, and the driver of the car, Santiago, then 18, allegedly sped away, with Flath in the front passenger seat of the car, which was owned by Decker. Another girl, then 15, also was a passenger in the car.
Then, Krassinger reportedly chased the Oldsmobile, with both cars exceeding 60 mph and ignoring traffic signals and stop signs in a residential neighborhood. Santiago allegedly ran a stop sign at Amvets Drive, and the Oldsmobile was hit on South Second Street by a 1995 Chevrolet 1500 pickup driven by Trigg, then 20.
After the collision, the car began to spin, and the right side of it struck the front of a parked car on South Second Street.
Flath was pronounced dead at the scene by medical personnel and Santiago and the other girl were hospitalized.
The probable-cause statement in the case indicated Santiago was driving under the influence of drugs, and he was charged by the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and pleaded guilty in July 2019 to three felony counts – causing the death of another while driving under the influence; causing serious physical injury while driving while under the influence; and resisting arrest, detention or stop by fleeing and creating a substantial risk of serious injury or death to any person.
Div. 2 Circuit Judge Darrell Missey sentenced Santiago to 10 years in prison for the causing death by DWI charge, seven years in prison for the DWI physical injury charge and four years in prison for the resisting arrest count.
The execution of all three sentences was suspended and Santiago was sentenced to five years of supervised probation, according to court documents.
Wrongful death case
In court documents, Decker alleges Krassinger began the pursuit knowing there were minors in the car (after seeing them with his spotlight) and with no indication anyone in the Oldsmobile had committed a crime. The suit also says that, after running the license plate number before approaching the car, the officer knew Decker’s address.
Schuler, according to court documents, assisted in the chase after the cars left the cemetery.
The case also alleges that Edwards, as police chief, and Helms, as sergeant, failed to train the department’s officers on proper police pursuits according to the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Commission requirements. It also alleges that Edwards and Helms failed to require officers to follow state law directing officers to consider the safety of those not involved in a pursuit and that they should have directed officers to end the pursuit given the risks to the public.
Santiago has settled his part in the case by agreeing to pay $78,500 and Trigg agreed to settle his for $75,000; both agreements were signed by Rathert in July 2020.
In the settlement documents, both denied fault for injuries and damage related to the accident but acknowledged that if the case were to be tried by a jury, they ran the risk of being ordered to pay more.
In May 2020, attorneys for Edwards and Helms filed motions with Rathert, arguing they should be dismissed as defendants in the civil case because they should be protected under the public duty and official immunity legal doctrines.
In July 2020, Rathert ruled against their motions to dismiss, but dismissed Schuler as a party to the case.
The Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld Rathert’s ruling in September 2020, and Edwards and Helms then appealed to the Supreme Court.
In arguments before the Supreme Court, the attorneys for Edwards and Helms assert “the doctrines of official immunity and the public duty doctrine merge to protect public servants from mere acts of negligence in the performance of their discretionary public duties. This protection is intended to allow these public servants to act quickly and decisively, for the benefit of the public, and without fear of crippling personal exposure on claims that have been brought with the obvious benefit of hindsight.”
A motion hearing in Decker’s wrongful death civil suit is scheduled for May 21 before Rathert.