United States District Court, D. South Dakota
MICHAEL R. DECKER, AS TRUSTEE FOR THE NEXT OF KIN OF VANNAH TYRA DECKER; Plaintiff,
DEERFIELD HUTTERIAN BRETHREN INC., AND JANOS STAHL, Defendants.
OPINION AND ORDER
CHARLES B. KORNMANN, United States District Judge
R. Decker, trustee for the next of kin of his deceased
daughter, Vannah Tyra Decker, filed a complaint alleging
wrongful death claims, pursuant to SDCL §21-5-1 et
seq., and survival claims, pursuant to SDCL §
15-4-1 et seq., against Deerfield Hutterian Brethren
Inc. and Janos Stahl. These allegations arise from an
automobile accident that occurred on February 9, 2014.
Defendant Deerfield Hutterian Brethren Inc. has made a motion
for summary judgment, asserting the plaintiffs negligence
claims against Deerfield Colony fail as a matter of law.
R. Decker, father of Vannah Decker, is a baptized Hutterite
and lives with his family at Starland Hutterian Brethren
Colony in Gibbon, Minnesota. Michael and his wife, Elsie, had
five children. Vannah was their second daughter and had just
turned fifteen years old.
February 9, 2014, the Decker family was visiting the
children's grandparents at Plainview Colony near Leola,
South Dakota. At approximately 5:30 p.m., Vannah left to eat
dinner with her friend, Heidi Stahl. After dinner, Vannah and
Heidi decided to go to Heidi's friend's house where
several other Plainview Colony teens had gathered. Among the
teens in the group was Vannah's older brother, Lyndon.
Several teens from Plainview Colony were drinking beer when
Vannah and Heidi arrived. Vannah did not consume alcohol that
night, but instead was more interested in meeting with Janos
Stahl, a seventeen-year old Hutterite from Deerfield Colony,
just four miles away.
and Janos had been secretly using their cell phones to
message each other through Facebook for the past year.
Deerfield Colony prohibits any use of Facebook or Facebook
Messenger. So in order to communicate, Janos would have to go
into town and get access to the public wireless Internet at
the local library. Realizing the opportunity, Vannah messaged
Janos to visit her at Plainview Colony later that night.
Although they had a budding friendship, they had yet to meet
going to church that evening, Janos went into his
grandmother's house to take two Hamm's beers from her
refrigerator. After his parents went to bed around 9:00 p.m.,
Janos grabbed the keys to the GMC Jimmy off the nail in the
front closet, went outside, started the GMC Jimmy, and took
off for Plainview Colony.
had already consumed the Hamm's beers by the time he
arrived at Plainview Colony, a drive which typically takes
fifteen minutes. As Janos was driving into Plainview Colony,
he messaged Vannah, and a group of Plainview Colony teens
went outside to meet him. At the house, the group of
Plainview Colony teens supplied Janos with a few more beers.
After drinking and talking with the group, Janos and Vannah
decided to tell the others they were going for a walk at
approximately 10:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Because it was a
bitterly cold February night, they decided to sit in the GMC
Jimmy with the motor running. After some time, Janos decided
to drive Vannah back to Deerfield Colony.
before the accident, Janos remembers driving down
125th Street, a gravel road. In an attempt to
impress Vannah, Janos sped up to 97 miles per hour. As they
were talking and laughing, Janos heard a loud noise. The GMC
Jimmy hit the ditch, rolled several times, and broke through
a barbed-wire fence. Vannah was ejected from the vehicle.
regained consciousness and claims he looked for Vannah for
about ten minutes with no success. Janos then walked back to
Deerfield Colony in his socks. The temperature at the time
was fifteen below zero. When Janos arrived at his house, he
took a shower and went to sleep. Janos failed to tell anyone
about the accident that night. Vannah's body was found
the next morning at the scene of the accident.
addition to a crushed Hamm's beer can, an open bottle of
Windsor Canadian Whiskey was found next to the GMC Jimmy.
John Stahl believes the Windsor bottle may have been taken
from the Deerfield Colony hog barn where Janos worked. Empty
whiskey bottles were often used to store wine for later
consumption. Alcoholic beverages were readily available in
the workplace, including where minors such as Janos Stahl
worked on a daily basis. There is no evidence that alcohol
was kept under lock and key. For children growing up in a
colony, there are two kinds of property: things under lock
and key to which access is forbidden, and materials not
locked up. The latter are accessible and available for use.
The practice of using padlocks on the colony "is
necessary to keep children from getting into
everything." Ex. Z at 6. There is a widespread
expectation that children will get into everything. One
preacher said: "Opportunity makes thieves, and we have
to keep things locked up." ]d.
EMS workers, Janos initially told them there was no passenger
in the vehicle at the time of the accident. Once the EMS
workers informed Janos they knew there was at least one
person with him, he told them what had happened. Janos has
also testified that when he regained consciousness he
believed Vannah was already at Plainview Colony.
morning, Michael and Elsie Decker expected Vannah to be at
Heidi's house. They were informed by the South Dakota
Highway Patrol that Vannah had been in an automobile
accident. A family friend drove Michael to the scene of the
accident to identify Vannah. The South Dakota Highway Patrol
concluded that Janos's excessive speed of 97 miles per
hour was the cause of the accident, explaining Janos operated
the vehicle in "an irresponsible and unsafe
manner." Moreover, the South Dakota Highway Patrol found
the weather conditions to not be a factor in causing the
has admitted his negligence in this case. He was charged
criminally as an adult with Second Degree Manslaughter and
served a one-year sentence in the Edmunds County Jail. Janos
is now living with his parents at Deerfield Colony.
Deerfield Hutterian Brethren Inc., is a non-profit
corporation near Ipswich, South Dakota. The purpose of the
Deerfield Colony is to promote the Hutterian religious faith
and church. Part of their belief system is that the church
members "should live together in a farming community,
without individual ownership of personal or real
property." Deerfield Colony has around 125 members, and
each member is prohibited ...