Sevastianos and Rogers Secure $1.3 Million Settlement for Family of Grandmother Killed in Drag-Race
A settlement of $1,325,000 was reached just days before a St. Louis County jury was set to begin trial. The case involved the death of a grandmother of five and friend to many in her community.
On July 8, 2016, Scott Bailey and Haven Sooter were drag racing on a pedestrian street when Sooter slammed on the brakes and crashed into the back of The Client’s car. She was catapulted from the driver’s seat into her back seat; meanwhile, her SUV careened into the left lane and was hit by Bailey’s car. Police said that Bailey’s car was going 75 mph at impact.
Our team was prepared to argue that Dr. John T. Engels allowed Haven Sooter, his roommate of ten years, to drive the doctor’s BMW sports car while legally intoxicated on the evening of the accident. That decision, the plaintiffs argued, led to Sooter engage in a drag race down Lindbergh Boulevard at 9 p.m. resulting in a high-speed collision that left the woman dead and her family devastated.
The Night of the Car Crash
The plaintiffs claimed that Haven Sooter, who was driving a BMW 435i at the time, was racing against Scott A. Bailey in a convertible Ford Mustang GT.
During the race, both cars reached speeds in excess of 110 mph as they raced southbound on Lindbergh Boulevard between Ladue Road and Garibaldi Place in Frontenac, Missouri.
The plaintiffs alleged that Sooter drove the BMW into the rear of their mother’s Toyota SUV, propelling her SUV out of the right-hand lane of southbound Lindbergh and into the left lane, where her vehicle was struck again by Bailey in his red Mustang. The second collision between the Mustang and SUV caused the SUV to strike the concrete median that separates north from southbound traffic on Lindbergh Boulevard.
First responders to the scene found the victim with a shattered spine and internal bleeding. She was rushed to the trauma unit of Mercy Medical Center. Doctors tried to stop her internal bleeding, but she died within 24 hours of the crash. She was just days away from her 73rd birthday and, on the day that she passed away, she had tickets to visit her son James and his family in Florida.
Dr. John Engels’ Involvement
Police reports indicate that Dr. John Engels initially told police a few days after the collision that he knew Sooter was drinking that night. Although he later denied the accuracy of that police report, Engels was willing to concede by the date of trial that he allowed Sooter to take his BMW sports car out on the evening of the wreck so that he and Sooter could each have a hamburger, even though he knew that:
- Sooter’s habit is to drink every evening
- Sooter had been drinking that particular evening
- Sooter has had a drinking problem since 2008
- Sooter smoked marijuana, and kept it in Engels’ Ladue home
- Sooter had at least one DUI in the past
- Sooter had several incidents with the law due to his use of alcohol and marijuana
- Sooter bought A LOT of alcohol using Engels’ credit card
- His neighbors complained to him of Sooter’s drinking, threats of violence, and propensity to speed
The plaintiffs’ lawyers, John Rogers and Noel Sevastianos, were able to uncover this information using devices each of them developed in their years doing criminal defense work and personal injury work, respectively.
For instance, the statements from Engels’ neighbors were the product of Rogers’ investigative work as a criminal defense attorney. Meanwhile, Sevastiaanos used his experience as a personal injury attorney to uncover information about the volume of Sooter’s liquor purchases and past run-ins with the law involving drugs or alcohol.
State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company paid the victim’s sons a total of $1,325,000 million. That figure represents:
- $250,000 – the policy limit for Haven Sooter (one of the drivers)
- $1 million – the personal umbrella policy limit for John T. Engels (the one who lent Sooter the car he raced while legally intoxicated)
- $75,000 – personally paid by Engels
In this case, Sooter had no personal assets and an automobile policy that afforded only $250,000 of coverage.
Scott Bailey had no assets and only $100,000 in automobile coverage. Bailey hailed himself as a personal injury attorney experienced in wrongful death cases on his website. (Bailey has since taken his site down and his law license is suspended following a criminal conviction for 2nd-degree manslaughter. He is appealing that conviction).
Dr. Engels had $1,000,000 of coverage under a personal umbrella policy, but there had to be a claim for negligent entrustment to trigger that coverage.
Due to the oddity and disparity of insurance coverage, Sooter and Bailey offered to settle for the policy limits almost immediately. Engels’ insurer, however, offered only $250,000.
Once the plaintiffs’ investigation revealed the extent of Dr. Engels’ knowledge regarding Sooter’s history of drinking, the plaintiffs settled with Sooter, but they intended to take the case against Dr. Engels to trial with him as the only defendant.
This raised the risk that a verdict in excess of $1,350,000 (the total insurance coverage available to Engels, Sooter, and Bailey) would be borne by Dr. Engels personally. At that point, Engels’ insurer offered its $1,000,000 policy limit, and Engels added another $75,000.
The plaintiffs accepted the $1,075,000 to release Engels from liability for the death of their mother. Their claims against Scott Bailey, however, remain pending.
What is Negligent Entrustment?
In Missouri, the law of “negligent entrustment” allows an injured party to make a claim against another if:
- The entrustee (i.e., the person who receives or borrows an item) is incompetent to use that item by reason of age, inexperience, habitual recklessness, etc.
- The entrustor (i.e., the person who gives or loans an item) knew or had reason to know of the entrustee’s incompetence
- There was entrustment of the item
- The negligence of the entrustor concurred with the conduct of the entrustee to cause the plaintiff’s injuries
This law is most often used in Missouri in cases involving automobiles, especially where the driver is drunk, habitually reckless, has a suspended or revoked driver’s license, or otherwise not physically or mentally competent to operate the vehicle. The general rule in Missouri since Lix v. Gastian, 261 S.W.2d 497, 500 (Mo.App.1953) is that:
An owner of an automobile is under a duty not to place the automobile in the hands of a person whom he knows, or in the exercise of reasonable diligence could have known, to be an incompetent, careless, reckless, or inexperienced driver. The owner/entrustor of a car violates this legal duty when the borrower/entrustee, through negligent operation of the owner/entrustor’s car, injures another person.
The cause of the injury is legally recognized to be the combined negligence of the owner/entrustor and the driver/entrustee, making them jointly responsible.
Entrustment can be proven by specific/express permission or by circumstances that make permission implied. Implied permission exists when a history of the parties dealings and/or relationship includes a mutual consent. Even the lack of objection which, under particular circumstances, can signify permission or the giving of consent.
Contact Our Experienced St. Louis Lawyers
You can trust the skilled attorneys at Rogers Sevastianos & Bante, LLP to fight for you against individuals and their large insurance companies. We offer expert legal advice and representation. Contact us today for a free case evaluation!