The North Dakota Supreme Court has ordered a new civil trial for a driver who caused a Bismarck expressway crash that killed two women, injured a third and produced a jury award of more than $1 billion in damages.
The 2015 crash killed 21-year-old Taylor Goven, of Mandan, and 22-year-old Abby Renschler, of Lincoln, and caused a traumatic brain injury to 21-year-old Shayna Monson, of Dickinson.
Jordan Morsette, 28, who had a blood alcohol content more than three times the legal limit, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide and criminal vehicular injury.
A civil court jury in November 2019 awarded punitive and compensatory damages to Monson and the families of Renschler and Goven that topped $1 billion. 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. Morsette’s attorney, Kay Nord Hunt, in February argued that the district judge was wrong to admit evidence of Morsette’s intoxication because he had already admitted liability for the crash, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
Nord Hunt 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.
The Supreme Court justices concluded in a decision released Thursday 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.