Video still

An image from a dash camera shows Yellowstone County sheriff's deputies shooting at Loren Simpson on Jan. 8, 2015, near Huntley.

Yellowstone County has agreed to pay the family of Loren Benjamin Simpson, who was fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies in 2015 near Huntley, $1.25 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.

Attorneys for Simpson’s estate and Yellowstone County said late Monday afternoon that the parties had reached the settlement after a mediation session recently in Missoula.

A status report filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Billings said a tentative agreement reached April 13 through mediation had been approved by the county.

Simpson family members

Loren Simpson’s mother, Wanda Simpson, and sister Kyli Smith talk in January 2015 about Loren Simpson, who was fatally shot by Yellowstone County deputies. 

Simpson’s family sued Yellowstone County alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations after two deputies shot and killed Simpson on Jan. 8, 2015, near Huntley.

Simpson approached the deputies on While Buffalo Road while driving a Ford Explorer that had been reported stolen. The deputies fired at the vehicle, striking Simpson multiple times, including a fatal shot that hit him in the back of the head.

Deputies told investigators they felt threatened by the vehicle coming at them. Both deputies resigned five days after the shooting.

A coroner’s inquest ruled that the deputies did not act criminally in Simpson’s shooting death.

Simpson’s family sued alleging, among their claims, that the deputies used excessive force and were not entitled to qualified immunity. The case initially was filed in 2015 in state district court and was later transferred into federal court.

Missoula attorney Nathan Wagner, who represents the Simpson family, said in a statement on Monday:

“While $1,250,000 does not begin to compensate Loren’s family for what they have been through, this settlement is a step in the right direction toward bringing closure to Loren’s family. We hope this incident will help to spur reforms in the law enforcement community to prevent excessive use of force against Montanans who pose no threat to law enforcement or the public.”

Kevin Gillen, Yellowstone County deputy attorney, confirmed the settlement amount on Monday.

Gillen said the county was not admitting any wrongdoing.

The settlement will be paid with $1 million from insurance and $250,000 from the county.

In January, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters, who is hearing the case, ruled against the county saying the deputies’ actions were unreasonable and that they were not entitled to protections, known as qualified immunity, under the law.

Qualified immunity provides a government employee sued for money damages under federal constitutional claims with immunity if it was reasonable for the employee to believe his actions would not violate a clearly established legal or constitutional right.

The judge said a review of the facts, including a dash camera video, suggested it was “not objectively reasonable for the deputies to believe that Simpson was accelerating toward (a deputy) or to keep firing at the Explorer after it passed.”

Watters ruled that the force used by the deputies was “severe, the crime they suspected Simpson had committed was minor, the danger to the deputies was minimal, and the deputies could have used less intrusive means to effect the investigative stop.”

A jury, Watters said, could conclude that Simpson was not “an immediate threat” to the deputies or others at the time he was shot and killed, or even if he posed a threat, that the deputies’ response to that threat “was unreasonable and violated Simpson’s Fourth Amendment rights.” The Fourth Amendment protects against unlawful searches and seizures.

Yellowstone County appealed Watters’ ruling denying qualified immunity to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And Simpson’s family filed a motion asking the district court to certify the county’s appeal as frivolous.

The settlement was reached while both the county’s appeal and Simpson's family’s motion were pending, Wagner said.

No trial date had been set.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.