North Dakota Jury Awards $1 Billion in Damages in 2015 Drunk Driving Crash

Edward Maggio, J.D., M.S.

Written by
— Updated on June 25, 2020

North Dakota Jury Awards $1 Billion in Damages in 2015 Drunk Driving Crash

On June 27th, 2015, Jordan Morsette, slammed head-on into Shayna Monson’s car at the McKenzie Drive exit on the Bismarck Expressway, killing Monson’s two passengers, Abby Renschler and Taylor Goven. Monson was the only victim to survive the crash. It was later determined that Morsette’s blood alcohol content on the night of the crash was 0.295% — more than three times the legal limit of 0.08%.

After a trial, jurors on November 1st 2019, jurors in the Burleigh County, North Dakota courthouse awarded two types of damages sought against Morsette since the case was commenced in 2016.

Finding Morsette at fault, the jury awarded $295 million in punitive damages each to Shayna Monson, who survived the crash but suffered a traumatic brain injury, and to the families of 22-year-old Abby Renschler and 21-year-old Taylor Goven, both of whom died in the crash. The jury also awarded compensatory damages totaling $170 million to Monson and $36 million each to the families of the two women who died, all with 6% interest.

With a horrendous tragedy such as this case, the issue of fault hinges on the four key elements of a negligence claim: duty of care, breach of duty, causation, and damages. Initially, the link between the first three factors here is clear based on the conduct of Morsette. However, ascertaining damages may be an even bigger challenge.

Ultimately, there is no “bright-line” legal test for determining when an expert may testify about damages. However, courts have been more than willing to allow these experts to testify when:

  1. A close tie exists between liability and damages, such as in personal injury, wrongful death, and business interruption cases
  2. Accepted methodologies are used to calculate the amount of damages
  3. The calculations do not require the expert to speculate about an alternative cause for the losses

Personal injury claims that go to trial, such as this matter, often hinge on determining the plaintiff’s damages. It is therefore necessary to use physicians, actuaries, and vocational experts for assessing the damages suffered by the plaintiffs.

Expert Witnesses

While not reported in the news, it is likely that the plaintiff’s attorney presented expert testimony to solidify the negligence and damages claims,  including how the survivor’s brain injuries have affected her life. In addition, this follows testimony as to medical costs.  The future cost to properly care for her for the rest of her life would have also been presented. This would include medical professionals and economic experts to prove the high level of damages.

For example, a figure such as $170 million in compensatory damages for Shayna Monsen may seem like an excessive figure. However, because of the severe impact a brain injury has, the surgeries that are involved in treating such injuries are extensive, costly, and life-altering. Experts in such cases often testify as to the cost of the ongoing care that the accident victim will need for the rest of her life.

In addition, the deaths of Abby Renschler and 21-year-old Taylor Goven would also allow their counsel to present expert witnesses. Such testimony would include economic hardship now placed on their families. Furthermore, testimony may have included the emotional damage caused by the loss of their loved ones.

Views of the Jury

Attorney Chad Nodland discussed what led to these staggering damage awards. “The jury listened to the families and to Shayna Monson and confirmed just exactly what they’ve been living with for the last four years, four months and four days and what they’re going to live with for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Ultimately, these high verdicts were based upon a jury’s desire to show the value of a human life. Furthermore, Morsette, had a previous DUI conviction. He pleaded guilty in 2016 to two counts of criminal vehicular homicide and one count of criminal vehicular injury. He was sentenced and is incarcerated at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck, with an estimated release date in 2036.

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