Settlement terms disclosed in suit against Billings police for fatal DUI crash

2013-03-06T11:41:00Z 2013-03-07T09:07:04Z Settlement terms disclosed in suit against Billings police for fatal DUI crashBy GREG TUTTLE gtuttle@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A Billings man whose wife was killed by a drunken driver has agreed to settle a wrongful-death and negligence lawsuit against the Billings Police Department.

An attorney for John Trewhella said a settlement agreement calls for the city to pay $222,000 to resolve claims that officers should have arrested a woman who was reported as a drunken driver two hours before she caused the death of 59-year-old Merry Jane Trewhella, a longtime Billings educator.

Billings attorney Steve Harman, who represented John Trewhella in the case, confirmed the settlement Wednesday and provided an unsigned copy of the agreement to The Billings Gazette.

The agreement states the city will pay $222,000 to resolve Trewhella's claims.

The city, which was represented by Billings attorney Harlan Krogh, does not admit liability, according to the agreement.

Krogh could not be reached for comment. City Administrator Tina Volek said earlier that she was unfamiliar with the terms of the agreement. 

The settlement is likely to be paid by the city's insurance provider, the Montana Municipal Insurance Authority.  

The agreement also contains a provision that the Billings Police Department "provide additional training to patrol officers in regards to DUI investigations arising from citizen complaints and using this event and other actual events as a training resource."

Harman said the promise by Police Chief Rich St. John to pursue such training was important to Trewhella.

"My hat's off to the chief of police, who agreed to do something beyond the payment," Harman said. "In other words, they are willing to learn from their mistakes and use this as a training tool."

St. John said he will coordinate the training with the city and county attorney's offices.

In the past, St. John said, the department has not put much emphasis on citizen-reported drunken-driving complaints because of the difficulty in such cases to make a valid arrest that leads to a conviction.

And officers who made such an arrest based only on a witness account ran the risk of making a wrongful arrest, he said.

"Times have changed," St. John said. "We recognize we have to adapt."

Drunken driving and the associated risk have garnered more attention in recent years, including efforts to encourage the public to report DUI drivers, the police chief said. 

 "We stress people call (to report drunken drivers), and it's incumbent on us to act on it," St. John said.

The training St. John hopes to provide city officers will focus on how to make such arrests, he said.

"It's something we should have probably been paying more attention to, and unfortunately we had this situation," he said.

Merry Jane Trewhella died Feb. 22, 2010, at about 6:50 p.m. when a pickup truck driven by Tawny Fisher-Jones ran a red light and hit her car at King Avenue West and 29th Street West.

Two hours before the fatal crash, three Billings police officers were sent to an apartment building on Alderson Avenue after a man called 911 to report that an intoxicated woman was driving a truck and had become stuck in a snowbank.

Officers found Fisher-Jones still sitting in the truck, but the keys had been removed by a friend, Kelly St. Dennis, who lived nearby and told officers she would take Fisher-Jones home.

The officers agreed, and Fisher-Jones was released to St. Dennis.

Sometime later, Fisher-Jones again got behind the wheel of the pickup and caused the fatal crash.

After the lawsuit was filed, the city filed third-party complaints against St. Dennis and Fisher-Jones.

Harman said a confidential settlement was reached between the city and St. Dennis' insurance company. That settlement will be passed through the city to Trewhella, Harman said.

Fisher-Jones, who is serving a 20-year prison sentence for vehicular homicide, did not contribute to the settlement, Harman said.    

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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