St. Joseph County approves settlement with family injured in fatal crash

NOW: St. Joseph County approves settlement with family injured in fatal crash

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. -- St. Joseph County officials have settled a lawsuit that alleged two police officers let an impaired driver, Stephen Stopczynski, leave the scene of a crash, just hours before he was involved in a second crash that killed him and injured a woman and her four children.

The county settled and agreed to pay $10,000 to Kassandra Zwierzynski and her children, Ariella Zwierzynski, Viviana Zwierzynski, Zeta Zwierzynski and Giuliana Mendez.

County officials also agreed to provide dash cam video, evidence from the crash, internal affairs reports, as well as make St. Joseph County officers available for informal statements regarding the crashes.

The county did not admit liability.

On February 5, 2021 at 3:15 p.m., Corporal Brad Bauters and Corporal James Hart with the St. Joseph County Police Department responded to a crash on Crumstown Highway involving a Buick Century driven by Stopczynski.

An investigation by the police department revealed Bauters and Hart did not run Stopczynski’s license plate or driver’s license or perform sobriety tests even though Stopczynski told Hart he had a beer after work, and instead allowed him to call someone to pick him up from the scene.

At 7:47 p.m. the same day, Stopczynski crashed his Buick Century head-on into a car driven by Kassandra Zwierzynski on Crumstown Highway and Wilson Manor.

Kassandra and her children, Ariella, Viviana, Zeta and Giuliana Mendez were injured in the crash.

Giuliana suffered severe injuries.

The family sued alleging the two officers were liable for their injuries from the crash because they did not arrest Stopczynski or impound his car when they encountered him during the first crash investigation.

The two officers, Bauters and Hart, resigned from the department after the sheriff started termination procedures after an investigation showed they omitted information from their reports regarding the two crashes on February 5.

Here is the statement from the St. Joseph County Police Department to the county commissioners regarding the settlement:

I am here on behalf of Sheriff Redman & the department this morning to present this litigation settlement agreement. Full details are in the agreement, but I will give you a short summary.

First, the Sheriff & the department extend their deepest sympathies to the families of those injured and impacted by this tragic accident. This incident not only forever altered the lives of those directly involved but has deeply affected our entire community and our police department.

On Feb. 5, 2021, county police officers responded to a slide-off call of a suspected intoxicated driver on Crumstown Highway. The officers required the driver to leave his vehicle on scene but allowed him to be picked up and given a ride by a friend. After going home and returning to get his vehicle 4 1/2 hours later, that same driver then was involved in head-on crash causing his own death and causing serious injuries to a family in a second vehicle.

In September 2021 a tort claim notice was filed against the county on behalf of the family hit by that driver. However, the law provides the county and its officers protection from civil liable due to a decision to enforce a law or a failure to enforce a law. In short, the law gives government employees and officers some discretion and latitude when to ticket, arrest and enforce or not enforce the law. Therefore, providing the county, the department, and the officers a legal defense to this civil tort claim.

As with any litigation there is uncertainty and costs to managing the litigation through the discovery & motion process and to a close. Although the law favors the county in this matter, this settlement with the family at this early point in the litigation is a sensible and cost-efficient decision. This agreement been approved and signed by the family and by the Probate Court. Indiana law requires all settlements made on behalf of juvenile to be reviewed and approved by court to ensure it is in the child's best interests.

The department also notes that even though the law supports the discretion of the officers to let the driver leave his car and go home that day, that back in early 2021 the department & Sheriff conducted a through internal review and took public & transparent steps of discipline for other policy violations of the officers.

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