SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - The parents of two teens killed by the reckless driving of an Illinois state trooper deserve $8 million in damages, the Illinois Court of Claims announced Wednesday. It is believed to be the largest award ever granted by the special court that hears civil lawsuits against the state.
"We are hopeful that this ruling will have an impact on other officers and first responders, and that as a result no other family will ever have to go through what our family has suffered," said Kim Schlau of Collinsville, the mother of the girls.
The court found that Trooper Matt Mitchell was negligent Nov. 23, 2007, when he sped along Interstate 64 near Illinois Route 158 at up to 126 mph while also talking with his girlfriend on a cell phone and e-mailing another officer for directions on the patrol car computer.
Mitchell claimed another car cut him off before he lost control, crossed the median and slammed into an oncoming car. Jessica Uhl, 18, and Kelli Uhl, 13, were killed in the fiery collision as they were headed home to their mother's house after a photo session at their father's home in Mascoutah. It was the day after Thanksgiving.
The state still faces a pending lawsuit by Kelly and Christine Marler, of Fayetteville, who were injured in another vehicle involved in the crash.
No other witnesses supported Mitchell's story. A video camera in his car had not been turned on. He claimed he had finished the cell phone call before the crash. Evidence in the civil claim hearing last year said the wreck was reported to 911 just 36 seconds after cell phone records showed his call was terminated.
The trooper had been responding in a marked car with lights and siren to a report of a car crash with entrapment near Lebanon. He said he missed the part of the radio call advising that other first responders were already there.
Mitchell subsequently pleaded guilty of reckless homicide in exchange for a sentence of 30 months on probation. But three days later, he testified in the civil case that he had lied in his plea because he didn't think he could get a fair trial.
The Court of Claims decision was formalized Tuesday. It awards $3.5 million each to Schlau and the girls' father, Brian Uhl, and $500,000 each to the girls' half brother, Anthony Uhl, and half sister, Madelyn Dorsey. They had sought damages in excess of $24 million and increased that to $46 million after Mitchell testified that he had lied in admitting wrongdoing in the criminal case.
The crash occurred just six months after the Illinois Wrongful Death Act was amended to allow a court to consider providing compensation for "grief, sorrow and mental suffering." Those elements were strongly represented in the Court of Claims opinion.
J. Michael Mathis, a lawyer for the Court of Claims, said it doesn't keep a running tally of big awards but "to my knowledge, this is the largest tort claim ever awarded."
Tom Keefe Jr., the lawyer representing the family, said it is "twice as much as the (previous) largest award."
The suit was presented in April by a hearing officer, whose private recommendation was considered by a seven-member panel. Its 36-page opinion outlined the Uhl family's grief and slammed Mitchell.
"Trooper Mitchell is not a credible witness," wrote Peter Birnbaum, a Court of Claims judge. He said Mitchell's testimony was "inconsistent and wholly self-serving."
Larry Trent, the director of the state police when the wreck occurred, had testified that Mitchell's actions were "indefensible."
Mitchell resigned from his state police job last year and is pursing a workers' compensation claim for his own injuries. The state police said he had been involved in two previous crashes: a single-vehicle wreck in 2002 with no injuries and a 2003 crash that resulted in a $1.7 million Court of Claims judgment.
Court of Claims awards must be approved by the Legislature, but that is considered routine and usually occurs toward the end of each April.
The state covers all the damages as Mitchell was acting as its employee. It has 30 days to ask for a rehearing or a new trial. The attorney general's office, which defended the state, had no comment Wednesday.
Schlau said she would use some of the award to supplement money raised for scholarships in her daughters' names and to continue her efforts to promote driving safety among police cadets.
Kevin McDermott of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.