In re Estate of Woody v. Big Horn County – State Supreme Court Reverses Rejection of Wrongful Death Lawsuit

The wrongful death lawsuit of a man who died from numerous injuries he suffered following a high-speed police chase in Montana has been revived by the state supreme court there, which reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the action.policecar2

The case of In re Estate of Woody v. Big Horn County, stems from the December 2011 death of 21-year-old Kenneth “Kenny” Woody IV. He was a passenger in a vehicle driven by a 23-year-old friend of Woody’s. That man, Dustin Wegner, was already on probation for an earlier DUI in which four people had been injured. A sheriff’s deputy reportedly spotted the vehicle and attempted to initiate a traffic stop. But Wegner didn’t pull over. Instead, he fled and a chase ensued, with both vehicles reaching speeds in excess of 100 mph, according to The Billings Gazette.

Wegner eventually lost control of the truck, and it flipped several times, tossing both men from the vehicle. Woody was transported to a nearby hospital and died the next day. It was later revealed Wegner’s blood-alcohol level that night was 0.28 – 3.5 times the legal limit of 0.08. He was arrested and later convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to five years in prison. He has since been released on probation. 

Now, Woody’s family is seeking accountability from the sheriff’s office for wrongful death and survivorship damages, alleging the high speed chase should never have been initiated in the first place. Decedent’s parents as representatives of his estate, filed a claim for $750,000 in damages back in September 2014. That claim letter indicated the county had 120 days from the date of the letter to resolve the claim without necessity of litigation. The county commissioners later acknowledged they had received the letter, but they never actually responded.

In March 2015, the estate formally filed their lawsuit against the county in which they alleged negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, survivorship and wrongful death. A couple weeks later, the county responded with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, asserting the estate didn’t meet the three-year statute of limitations for such actions. Estate objected to the motion, arguing the claim letter it had submitted tolled the statute of limitations.

The district court granted the county’s motion to dismiss, but the Montana Supreme Court reversed.

Neither side disputes that the action first accrued on the date of the crash in December 2011. And neither state disputes that all civil actions have to be commenced within the periods prescribed, except when another law specifically provides a different limitation.

In Montana, as in many other states, claims against the state and/or political subdivisions of it first have to be presented to the county as a claim before a lawsuit can be formally filed. There is no tolling provision in that requirement, but the law does say actions against the county for claims that have been rejected have to be initiated within six months of that first rejection. But the county never rejected the claim in this instances. It never acknowledged it at all, really, except to say it had been received.

The state supreme court sided with the state, based on prior case law precedent that essentially held that so long as the initial claim was filed within the three-year statute of limitations, plaintiff had six months from that date – or the date of the first rejection – to file their claim. Because no rejection came, they had the full six months, which meant the claim was timely filed.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

In re Estate of Woody v. Big Horn County, July 26, 2016, Montana Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Jakubowicz – Auto Insurance Policy Ambiguous, Aug. 2, 2016, Miami Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog

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