MOORHEAD — Former Park Christian School basketball coach Josh Lee testified Thursday, July 25, that he wasn't under contract with the school in June of 2015 when Park Christian athletes Zach Kvalvog, 18, and Connor Kvalvog, 14, died in a motor vehicle crash on their way to a basketball tournament in Wisconsin in 2015.
Lee's statements differed from those made by others who have worked for Park Christian as coaches and provided testimony during the trial phase of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Ray and Kathie Kvalvog, the parents of Zach and Connor.
The suit, which names Lee and Park Christian School as defendants, seeks $82.9 million.
Several people who have coached at Park Christian testified that their contracts covered their off seasons and they indicated that regardless of time of year they always considered themselves to be Park Christian coaches.
The issue is an important one because a critical question jurors will have to answer is whether or not the June 2015 basketball tournament was a school event.
The plaintiffs maintain it was, asserting that information about the trip was put on school calendars and flyers.
Lawyers for Lee and the school have emphasized things like an email, which was sent to parents prior to the event. The email contained a bullet item that appeared to indicate students were expected to secure their own transportation to the tournament.
The bullet item read something to the effect: "If you ride with someone, offer to help with gas."
Jessie Aamodt, cheerleader coach at Park Christian and the mother of a basketball player who would have been on the trip to Wisconsin if he hadn't been injured, testified Thursday that at some point prior to June 23, 2015, the day basketball players set out on the trip, she and several other parents had heard through the grapevine that a number of vehicles were going.
Aamodt said her impression was that Zach Kvalvog would be one of the drivers.
She added, however, that when the subject came up during a conversation between parents at a local basketball game, her understanding of who would be driving came as news to Kathie Kvalvog.
"She seemed surprised," Aamodt said.
When Kathie Kvalvog took the stand Thursday, she talked about that conversation between parents, stating she told the group in no uncertain terms that Zach wouldn't be driving.
"I assumed there would be buses or vans," she said, recalling that the morning her boys left for the tournament, she fixed each of them the breakfast of their choice.
She testified she had a bad feeling about the trip, adding she knew Zach wanted to go to a different basketball tournament instead.
Kvalvog said she and her husband ultimately decided the boys would go on the trip, in part because of a previous incident that resulted in friction with the school after they kept Zach Kvalvog home instead of letting him go on a school-sponsored retreat.
She said a school official scolded them harshly for not trusting enough in God and the school, and she said, "they made him (Zach Kvalvog) be the janitor for those two days."
The Kvalvog brothers died when the pickup the older brother was driving crashed on Interstate 94 near Dalton, Minn., the morning of June 23, 2015.
Two teammates that were riding with the boys were injured but survived the crash.
The Minnesota State Patrol determined that a semi the pickup was attempting to pass crowded into the pickup's lane, causing Zach Kvalvog to swerve and overcorrect, resulting in the pickup leaving the road and rolling across the median, before coming to rest in the westbound lanes of the interstate.
A crash reconstructionist for the plaintiffs testified the pickup and two vehicles it was following in a small caravan had probably been traveling at an average speed of about 80 mph.
Tim Kerr, a parent and football coach who was driving a group of students in the lead vehicle of the caravan, testified Thursday he had his cruise control set at about 73 mph for most of the trip.
Lee was driving alone in his car, following behind Kerr's SUV but in front of Kvalvog's pickup.
During the trial, it was noted several times that Ray Kvalvog has never felt satisfied that Lee and school officials have told the whole story of how the crash occurred and what happened afterward.
Kerr's testimony suggested that Ray Kvalvog suspected Lee may have cut off the semi truck while passing it, causing it to swerve into the path of his son's pickup.
"He didn't believe Zach would have just drove off the road," Kerr said.
A recording was played in court Thursday of a meeting held at a local church that was intended to help patch things up between the Kvalvog family and school officials.
The meeting was put together in part through the efforts of Austin Schauer, who at the time was in charge of fundraising at Park Christian School.
On the recording, Ray Kvalvog can be heard questioning Lee about statements he made to others that he had seen Connor Kvalvog shortly after he died and that the boy appeared to have a peaceful countenance.
"There is no peacefulness. It was horrific," Kvalvog said in the recording, adding that Lee's statement was one of many inconsistencies that made it difficult for him to know what to believe.
On Thursday, Michael Bryant, an attorney representing the Kvalvogs, said to Lee under cross examination: "You never saw a peaceful look on his (Connor's) face, did you."
"No," Lee replied.
During her testimony, Kathie Kvalvog talked about how she and her husband tried to conceive again following the deaths of their sons.
She said after more than one attempt at artificial insemination she gave birth to a son who will soon be turning a year old.
Kvalvog said a donor egg was used and therefore her motherhood experience has been different this time around, but she said she is happy with her baby, nonetheless.
Still, she said, she misses seeing the family traits displayed in her other boys, telling jurors that Zach had had her hair and eyes.
Connor, she said, had had her build, "and he had my soul. He was so much like me."
Kvalvog said while both her boys possessed exceptional athletic skill, it seemed things came more naturally to Connor, something she said the rest of the family recognized.
"Connor would have broken all Zach's records. And Zach knew it," she said.
Officials said Thursday the case could go to jurors on Friday, July 26.