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Decker v. Deerfield Hutterian Brethren Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Dakota

March 10, 2017



          CHARLES B. KORNMANN, United States District Judge

         Michael 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.


         Michael 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.

         On 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.

         Vannah 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 in person.

         Before 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.

         Janos 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.

         Moments 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.

         Janos 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.

         In 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.

         To the 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.

         That 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 accident.

         Janos 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.

         Defendant 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 ...

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