A driver who caused a 2015 Bismarck Expressway crash that killed two women, severely injured a third and resulted in a $1 billion jury award should get a new civil trial, his attorney argued Tuesday before the North Dakota Supreme Court.
Attorney Kay Nord Hunt argued that Jordan Morsette made an “unequivocal admission of his fault” in causing the crash that killed Taylor Goven, 21, of Mandan, and Abby Renschler, 22, of Lincoln, and caused a traumatic brain injury to Shayna Monson, 21, of Dickinson. Hunt also said evidence that Morsette was drunk should not have been allowed in part of his trial.
A civil court jury in November 2019 awarded $295 million in punitive damages each to Monson and the families of Renschler and Goven. Jurors also awarded compensatory damages totaling $170 million to Monson and $36 million each to the families of the two women who died. Punitive damages are awarded as punishment; compensatory damages are meant to cover losses. The district court later reduced the total damage award to about $690 million, according to Supreme Court documents.
Morsette, 28 at the time of the crash, had a blood alcohol content of just under 0.3%, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08%. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular injury.
Morsette appealed to the Supreme Court after a district judge last June denied his request for a new civil trial.
After his admission of fault, evidence of his intoxication should not have been allowed during the compensatory part of the trial because it “only served to inflame the jury,” Nord Hunt told justices. The families of the women who were killed suffered because of their deaths, not because of negligent acts made by Morsette before the crash, she argued.
The introduction of Morsette’s blood alcohol content during the compensatory portion of the trial doubly punished him, Nord Hunt argued, adding that the judge should have instructed the jury not to use the evidence to enhance the award, make an example of Morsette or prevent other wrongdoing.
“But that’s what the jury heard in closing argument,” she said. “Punish the appellant.”
Nord Hunt also said the evidence did not support the monetary award, which she called unprecedented.
Attorney Chad Nodland, who represents Goven's family, told justices that Morsette chose to drive drunk, and the argument that his blood alcohol content had nothing to do with the harm caused to the women and their families “wasn’t true.”
Testimony at trial showed the impact the crash had on the families in changes to their lifestyles, harm to marriages, and their sense of loss, Nodland said.
He also argued that case law cited by Morsette’s team -- some dating to 1923 -- was outdated and didn’t apply in the case.
“To make the argument that, no matter what, under any circumstances, the presentation of the use of alcohol by a driver is prohibited in any case regardless of whether there’s a nexus to the damages, it doesn’t make any sense today,” Nodland said.
Evidence of Morsette’s intoxication had to be addressed during jury selection because alcohol use is so prominent in North Dakota, said attorney Jeff Weikum, who represented Monson. A trial might have to start over if a juror who has been affected by alcohol abuse learns of the blood alcohol content for the first time during the punitive stage, he said.
“It’s a fiction for the defense to argue hey, the jury isn’t going to hear about the 0.295,” Weikum said.
It’s unclear on what grounds the jury chose the reason for the punitive damages, Weikum said. Morsette’s actions were a conscious disregard for the rights of the women in the car, he said.
“Abby, Shayna and Taylor had the right to drive on a road that didn’t have somebody at four times the legal limit coming straight at them,” he said.
The amount of damages awarded is not out of line, Weikum argued. The lives of the two women who died aren't worth any less than the value society puts on professional athletes who make tens of millions of dollars in a single season, he said.
“Taylor’s family and Abby’s family never get to see them again,” Weikum said.
The justices will rule later.
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com