llinois taxpayers must pay more than $2.5 million in damages to the children of a Decatur mom who lost her life after her van was rammed by a speeding State Trooper responding to an emergency call.
The decision was handed down by four judges in the state’s Court of Claims in response to a lawsuit filed by the family of the late 26-year-old Kelly E. Wilson. She suffered her fatal injuries on the night of May 7, 2016, in a collision at the intersection of West Harrison and Oakland avenues.
But the court had initially awarded Wilson’s family more than $4.7 million in damages. The judges cut the final payment by 45%, however, because they ruled that was how much Wilson’s own negligence had contributed to the crash.
The court said its ruling was based on blood tests that showed she had a blood alcohol level above 0.8% and an elevated level of cannabis that were both beyond the legal limit for driving.
Paradoxically, the judges also concluded — after hearing testimony from experts hired by the family’s attorney, Timothy Shay — there was actually no evidence Wilson’s reactions had been any different from a sober driver at the time of the crash.
She had been turning left from Harrison onto Oakland when she was rammed by Master Sgt. Jeffrey A. Denning’s northbound squad car. It had its emergency lights activated as it flew up Oakland at 108 mph but wasn’t continuously sounding its siren. Denning admitted his speed and intermittent siren use — a breach of police rules — had helped cause the accident.
Expert analysis would show his squad car had slowed to 90 mph or less when it hit Wilson’s van, the force of the impact sending the van airborne in a barrel roll.
Wilson would die from injuries some two hours later. Denning also was badly hurt and the trooper, now aged 55, retired in the wake of the crash.
In March of 2021 Denning had been sentenced to 24 months probation and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service after taking a plea deal that saw him admit a charge of reckless conduct, a Class A misdemeanor, in Macon County Circuit Court. A felony charge of reckless homicide had been dropped by special prosecutor Edwin Parkinson.
Given all that, however, the judges still said they had to take into account Wilson’s alcohol and drug use. “One thing is clear. Wilson had no right whatsoever to be driving that night. It was illegal to do so, irrespective of whether she allegedly behaved as a non-impaired driver would have behaved,” they said.
“Had Wilson not made the decision to drive in violation of Illinois law, the accident would not have occurred. As such, her violation of the vehicle code, by driving with illegal BAC levels, adds to the level of her contributory negligence.”
The court’s final calculations left Denning bearing 55% of the negligence and Wilson 45%. If the judges had found Wilson had been 50% negligent, they said, her family would be barred from being paid any money.
“While a close call, the court concludes that, given the reckless conduct of Trooper Denning, the court does not believe the evidence justifies a conclusion that Ms. Wilson was more than 50% negligent,” the judges said in their findings.
Shay, the attorney who litigated the case, told the Herald & Review on Monday that he was “surprised” by the amount of “comparative fault” the court had found. He said the court had focused on Wilson’s blood and drug levels “even though there was no evidence of impairment.”
Shay added: “The family has accepted the verdict. I think they want closure.”
After being reduced by 45%, the final award to be paid to Wilson’s family adds up to $2,591,761.26. Of that, $1.1 million each goes to Wilson’s daughters, now aged 14 and 8, for their “grief, sorrow, mental suffering” in the wake of their mother’s untimely death.
In addition, there were economic damages to make up for lost wages and income of totaling $336,761.26 and an additional pay-out of $55,000 for the pain and suffering of Wilson before she died.
The money, however, will not be paid just yet. The Court of Claims says the Illinois General Assembly must pass a “Special Awards Bill” to authorize payment of the court’s judgment. It is expected that legislation will be made law in the assembly’s 2024 spring session.
At the time of the fatal crash, Denning had been rushing to answer an emergency call after an officer had been shot and wounded in Mahomet. The criminal who shot the officer, Dracy “Clint” Pendleton, was thought to be fleeing along Interstate 72 and Denning had been racing to try and intercept him.
Pendleton was later tracked down and cornered by police in a section of the Shawnee National Forest on May 15, 2016, and killed in a subsequent gun battle with officers.