Appellate court rules in favor of police officer in fatal crash

First Posted: 4/14/2015

LIMA — An appellate court agreed with a village and a police officer seeking immunity in a double fatal traffic crash that happened after the officer had stopped the driver but released him with a warrant.

The 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled this week the village of Coldwater and Coldwater Police Officer David Powell can assert immunity defenses under Ohio law. The case was sent back to Mercer County Common Pleas Court where Judge Jeffrey Ingraham previously ruled against the immunity claims.

The lawsuit was filed by Bethany Wentworth and the family of 22-year-old Craig A. Gengler, who was killed in the crash. Wentworth was seriously injured. They are seeking more than $25,000.

A second person was killed, Vincent A. Gragorace, 21, but his family was not a party to the action.

The crash happened July 14, 2012, after 2 a.m., according to court records.

About 15 minutes before the crash, Powell stopped Ryan Billenstein for driving a car at a high rate of speed and swerving outside marked lanes. Powell noticed the smell of alcohol coming from the vehicle but Billenstein said his passengers were drinking, according to court records.

The lawsuit also alleged Billenstein had numerous driving convictions including one related to alcohol. Billenstein said he left a bar with his passengers who had been drinking, according to the lawsuit.

Powell issued Billenstein a warning for a lane violation and sent him on his way. Within a minute after the warning, Powell received a dispatch a vehicle matching the description of Billenstein’s car was traveling at a high rate of speed. Less than 15 minutes later, the crash happened, according to court records.

Wentworth and Gengler’s family said Powell and his agency acted intentionally, maliciously and recklessly for failing to enforce traffic laws and for Powell failing to do his job and properly investigate and perform tests to determine whether Billenstein was drunk.

Billenstein later was determined to be driving drunk. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison on two counts of aggravated vehicular homicide and one count of aggravated vehicular assault.

Ohio law gives immunity, with few exceptions, to political subdivision and its employees to prevent lawsuits from bankrupting the government.

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