The North Dakota Supreme Court has ordered a new civil trial for a driver who caused a 2015 Bismarck Expressway crash that killed two women, injured a third and brought a $1 billion jury award.
The crash killed Taylor Goven, 21, of Mandan, and Abby Renschler, 22, of Lincoln, and caused a traumatic brain injury to Shayna Monson, 21, of Dickinson.
Jordan 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.
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 appealed to the Supreme Court after a district judge last June denied his request for a new civil trial. Kay Nord Hunt, Morsette’s attorney, in February argued before the justices that the district judge was wrong to admit evidence of Morsette's intoxication because he had already admitted liability for the crash. She also argued the judge should not have allowed a plaintiffs' motion to add punitive damages and erred in instructions to the jury. She also maintained the jury's verdict was excessive.
Justices concluded that evidence of Morsette’s intoxication was irrelevant, that the district court did err in its instructions to the jury, and that it abused its discretion by allowing the claim for punitive damages.
"There was no evidence indicating that Morsette acted with ill will or wrongful motive and intended to injure Monson, Goven, Renschler, or any other person," the justices wrote. "Although Morsette’s conduct while intoxicated can be characterized as grossly negligent or extremely reckless, there are no special circumstances, such as an intent to injure or personal ill will toward the Plaintiffs, to support a finding of actual malice."
The new trial will be on compensatory damages only, according to the Supreme Court order.
Nord Hunt did not immediately respond to a request for comment; nor did Chad Nodland, who represented Goven's family at the February hearing.
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com