MOORHEAD — Trial began Monday, July 22, in Clay County District Court in a wrongful death lawsuit that seeks $82.9 million, a number that relates to the average speed vehicles were said to be traveling when two brothers died in a crash on their way to a basketball tournament in 2015.
Michael Bryant, an attorney representing the family of Ray and Kathie Kvalvog, told jurors during his opening statement that the Kvalvogs were asking for $82.9 million for the deaths of sons Zach Kvalvog, 18, and his 14-year-old brother, Connor, who died on June 23, 2015, in a crash on Interstate 94 near Dalton, Minn.
The reason for that specific amount was hinted at later during Bryant's questioning of Josh Lee, who was the basketball coach at Moorhead's Park Christian School in 2015.
Lee and Park Christian School are the only remaining defendants in the suit after other entities originally named as defendants —including FCA US, aka Chrysler Group, and the Secura insurance company — settled with the family.
Zach Kvalvog was driving his brother and two teammates to a basketball tournament in Wisconsin when the crash happened. A semi crowded into Zach Kvalvog's eastbound lane of I-94, causing him to swerve and overcorrect, a Minnesota State Patrol report said.
The pickup truck Zach Kvalvog was driving rolled into the median and ended up on the interstate’s westbound lanes.
The brothers died in the crash. Passengers Mark Schwandt and Jimmy Morton were hospitalized, but they recovered.
Bryant maintained Monday that the tournament was a school event and that at the time of the crash the Kvalvog vehicle was following two other vehicles in a small caravan, the first being an SUV carrying other basketball players and the second being a car that carried only its driver, Lee.
Bryant suggested that factors like distance traveled and elapsed time indicate the average speed of the caravan was 82.9 mph, and he asked Lee if that number surprised him.
Lee said it did, though he confirmed he had made earlier statements in which he estimated the caravan may have been traveling between 75 and 80 mph. The speed limit on I-94 in Minnesota is 70 mph.
Lee testified that after the crash he checked on Schwandt and Morton and then looked in the pickup and saw that Zach Kvalvog was dead.
Asked by Bryant what he did next, Lee said: "I believe I broke down and started to weep."
The suit claims Lee was negligent for failing to maintain a reasonable means of transportation to a school athletic event and that the school was vicariously liable for any negligence on Lee’s part.
Paul Rocheford, an attorney representing Lee and Park Christian School, said in his opening statement Monday that since the crash happened Ray Kvalvog has been on a mission to find answers, but when answers have been provided the family has not liked them.
Rocheford said a big question at the heart of the case was who, if anyone, was at fault for the crash.
An exhibit entered into evidence Monday indicated Lee made and received about a dozen phone calls in the minutes after the crash. None of the outgoing calls were to 911.
Twin Cities resident Deb Van was driving west on I-94 when she encountered the wreckage of the crash moments after it happened.
In video testimony played for the jury, Van said she stopped to see if she could render aid to the injured boys and minutes later saw someone she deduced was "the coach" pacing about the crash site and talking on his phone.
"He was on his cellphone walking around talking, talking, talking. He was very agitated," Van said in her recorded testimony.
Bryant said some calls Lee made were to school officials.
Rocheford said what happened after the crash and who did or didn't call 911 was not relevant to the lawsuit.
Instead, he focused attention on the boys' father, asserting that Ray Kvalvog could have driven his boys to the tournament, but chose instead to go to work.
"Ray could have driven his kids," Rocheford said.
A court order approving distribution of money recovered from Secura that was signed in December allows Ray Kvalvog to distribute $500,000 in settlement proceeds that include: a payment of about $166,666 to himself; a payment of an identical amount to Katherine Kvalvog and a payment of about $166,666 to a law firm as payment of attorney fees.
Court records indicate details regarding the settlement involving Chrysler Group have been sealed.
Bryant said Monday the Kvalvogs would not be commenting on the trial while it was ongoing.
Ray Kvalvog has said his primary reason for filing the suit was to find out the truth about what happened the day his sons died. He has also said he plans to donate any money awarded as part of the lawsuit to charity, or possibly even give it back to Park Christian, the private school his sons attended.