Killed in crash, billed by the state

The bill for Sarah Marie Stebbins' car crash arrived in the mail this month. The 21-year-old Elkridge woman wasn't home to open it.

Stebbins died May 29, when she lost control of her car on Route 32 in Columbia.

It was her grieving mother, Valerie Stebbins, who opened the envelope and learned that the state of Maryland was demanding $640.71 to repair the guardrail her daughter struck.

Sarah's father, Tom Stebbins, described his wife's reaction:

"We stopped at the mailbox on the way out, and all of a sudden she breaks down," Stebbins said. "I was mortified, not so much that they sent the bill — it is what it is — but they sent us a copy of the accident report."

A spokesman for the State Highway Administration, which sent the bill, said the dunning letter was an "inexcusable" error and has been rescinded.

While the agency bills drivers for damage caused to state property in routine crashes, spokesman Charlie Gischlar said, its policy is to waive the charges when the driver is killed. Even in cases where a driver succumbs to injuries months after an accident, he said, the state refunds money already paid.

After The Baltimore Sun contacted the highway administration Friday, acting head Darrell B. Mobley called the Stebbins family to apologize.

The letter from the agency, which was addressed to Sarah Stebbins at her family's home, details how she struck the guardrail while traveling east on Route 32 where it crosses U.S. 29.

A rough sketch in the accident report shows how her 2002 Nissan Xterra spun out after the impact and rolled over before coming to rest in the right-hand lane.

At the top of the form a box is checked off indicating a fatality. Stebbins was the only person in the one-car accident.

"I didn't need to read the accident report. I didn't want to see the accident report. If I wanted to see the accident report, I would have asked for it," said Tom Stebbins, 51.

The bill includes a stern warning.

"Invoices are considered delinquent if not paid within 30 days of the invoice date. Delinquent invoices may be reported to credit reporting bureaus. Invoices referred to the Maryland Central Collection Unit will be charged an additional collection fee of 17 percent on unpaid balances as per Maryland law."

Stamped beneath it are the words: "Please submit to your insurance company."

Tom Stebbins said he eventually sent the bill to his insurance agent.

"When I told him it was addressed to Sarah, he said, 'I've never heard of that.'"

The fact that the bill arrived on state letterhead with the names of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and state Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley at the top struck a nerve.

"I'm very upset that Martin O'Malley's name is on the top of it," said Valerie Stebbins, 50. "I just assumed that if his name is on the letterhead, somebody of some importance should be seeing exactly what was going out."

Sarah Stebbins graduated from Howard High School in 2008. Her parents described her as an auto racing enthusiast and an award-winning equestrian. At the time of her death, she was driving home from her job at Gray Pony Saddle and Tack Shop in Highland.

She planned to enter Howard Community College this fall.

For her parents, the pain of her death is compounded by the knowledge that she was not wearing a seat belt. Just this week, a Howard County police investigator told them that she had been texting — a violation of state law — at the moment of impact.

Sitting at the kitchen table with his wife and their 24-year-old daughter, Heather, Tom Stebbins described how Sarah's death had left the family shattered.

He said his wife has been unable to work, and he has put his business as a contractor on hold to stay home with her. Both parents are in therapy to help them cope with the grief, he said. They have tried to occupy their time by creating a garden behind their home in Sarah's memory.

"Unless you've experienced the loss of a child, you cannot imagine how it affects the entire family," he said.

The delivery of the state's bill, along with the excruciating details of the crash, just added to the pain.

Tom Stebbins said it wasn't a matter of money, which the family could afford.

"It's about the insensitivity of the whole thing," he said.

That was how it struck Sarah's maternal uncle, Greg Greisman, who contacted The Sun.

Gischlar, the highway administration spokesman, said the letter never should have gone out. "It was completely a billing error on our part. Our deepest apologies go out to the family."

He said the agency will send a letter of apology, and the family will not be expected to pay the bill.

"We will assure this doesn't happen again," Gischlar said. "We are going to triple- and quadruple-check before anything goes out."

Sending the bill out under the governor's name was a routine use of state letterhead, he added. "It had nothing to do with the governor's office at all. This is on SHA."

Stebbins said the call from Mobley on Friday didn't take away any of the pain, but he appreciated Mobley's promise that steps would be taken to keep the same thing from happening to another family.

"That's what this is mostly about," Stebbins said.

Sarah's father hopes to begin speaking to groups of young people soon about the dangers of texting and driving.

But he said he's not ready yet.