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Home / Verdicts & Settlements / Family of grandmother killed in drag-race wreck settles for $1.325M

Family of grandmother killed in drag-race wreck settles for $1.325M

Family members of Kathleen Koutroubis, the 73-year-old grandmother killed in 2016 by a drag-racing wreck in Frontenac, have settled with two defendants in their wrongful-death lawsuit.

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company paid the deceased woman’s sons, James and John Koutroubis, a total of $1.25 million. That figure represents the policy limit of $250,000 for Haven Sooter, one of the drivers, and the personal umbrella policy limit of $1 million for John T. Engels, who had lent Sooter the car he raced. Engels also personally paid $75,000.

The remaining two defendants are the now-suspended St. Louis County attorney Scott A. Bailey and his wife, Diana. The claims against the Baileys remain pending.

The wreck occurred on July 8, 2016 at approximately 9:10 p.m., according to court records. After buying food at Steak ’n Shake, Sooter was driving Engels’ BMW southbound on Lindbergh Boulevard. His blood-alcohol content at that time was approximately three times the legal limit, said plaintiffs’ attorney Noel Sevastianos.

Sooter stopped at a red light at Ladue Road in the right lane. To his left was a Ford Mustang GT convertible in which Bailey was at the wheel, with his wife in the passenger seat.

The two vehicles began racing and reached high speeds until Sooter rammed into the back of a Toyota SUV ahead of him. It was being driven at or below the speed limit by Kathleen Koutroubis. The initial collision pushed her SUV into the left lane, where Bailey’s Mustang hit it. Her SUV then slammed into the concrete barrier that divides the boulevard.

The accident shattered Koutroubis’ spine and caused significant internal injuries and bleeding. She underwent two surgeries but died within 24 hours.

Sevastianos said Sooter and Bailey had negligible assets and automobile insurance coverage limits of $250,000 and $100,000 respectively. Engels, on the other hand, had a personal umbrella policy limit of $1 million, but there had to be a claim of negligent entrustment to trigger that coverage.

Sevastianos said that he and his colleague John P. Rogers made a variety of findings through depositions and other investigative methods that would’ve enabled them to prove at trial that Engels had negligently entrusted Sooter with his BMW that night. (They never deposed Sooter, who has suffered two strokes since the accident.)

Engels’ attorney, Debbie S. Champion of Rynearson, Suess, Schnurbusch & Champion, said that while Engels did testify to knowing that Sooter had a habit of drinking every evening, he did not admit to knowing Sooter was drunk at the moment he left for Steak ’n Shake.

In any event, Sevastianos concluded that taking Sooter and Bailey to trial along with Engels would have been unwise because under Missouri law, a jury would have to find Engels 51 percent at fault for him to be jointly and severally liable along with the drivers. Focus groups suggested that such an allocation of fault between the three defendants wasn’t likely, Sevastianos said.

So the plaintiffs settled with Sooter on Aug. 14, increasing the risk that they might also settle with Bailey and take Engels to trial as the sole defendant. In that scenario, Engels could have been personally liable for any damages on top of the $1.35 million sum of the three policy limits.

Sevastianos said the plaintiffs’ team “found no jury verdict or settlement reports that approached, much less exceeded,” such a figure. He also said of Engels’ attorney, Debbie Champion: “If anyone can keep a verdict down, it’s Debbie.”

The plaintiffs therefore considered State Farm’s offer, plus Engles’ personal contibution, to be a satisfactory result.

Bailey was sentenced to 60 days in jail and five years of probation on manslaughter charges. Sooter faced charges of second-degree murder and being a persistent drunken driver, but he has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.

“[My clients] were extremely close with their mom,” Sevastianos said. “They’ve seen Scott Bailey get slapped on the wrist legally, and Haven Sooter suffer no repercussion at all except house arrest, so it’s nice they can walk away and say that at least we got a settlement that’s very large for a negligent-entrustment case, and that somebody had to go into their pocket and pay the price personally. And all for a hamburger.”

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Breakdown: $250,000 for Sooter, $1 million from Engels’ policy, $75,000 from Engels’ personally

Venue: St. Louis County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 17SL-CC01441/Sept. 30, 2019

Judge: Brian H. May

Insurer: State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

Caption: James and John Koutroubis v. Haven Sooter and John T. Engels

Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: Noel A. Sevastianos and John P. Rogers, Rogers Sevastianos & Bante, Clayton

Defendants’ Attorneys: Debbie S. Champion, Rynearson, Suess, Schnurbusch & Champion, St. Louis; Scott C. Harper, Brinker & Doyen, Clayton