MOORHEAD — Jurors here have sided with Park Christian School and its former basketball coach, Josh Lee, in a wrongful death lawsuit involving the deaths of two Moorhead brothers who died in a crash on Interstate 94 while traveling to a 2015 basketball tournament in Wisconsin.
While the verdict returned Friday night, July 26, found the tournament was a school event, it also found that Lee was not negligent in the deaths of Zach Kvalvog, 18, and his brother, Connor Kvalvog, 14.
Jurors began deliberating Friday afternoon in the suit, which stemmed from an incident that happened on June 23, 2015, when Zach Kvalvog was driving his father's pickup to a basketball tournament in the Wisconsin Dells. Passengers in the pickup included his brother and two teammates.
The Kvalvog brothers died in the crash near Dalton, Minn. Their teammates were injured, but survived.
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 interstate's westbound lanes.
The parents of the boys, Ray and Kathie Kvalvog, brought suit in Clay County District Court against Lee and the school.
"The jury does what the jury does," Michael Bryant, an attorney for the Kvalvogs, said after the verdict was read Friday night.
He said he planned to talk over the verdict with his clients and decide if an appeal would be pursued. "We have that option," he said.
"I wish we would have found that semi," Bryant said, referring to the semi that left the scene of the crash and whose driver was never located.
Bryant said the trial was hard on the Kvalvogs but, he added, "Nothing is worse than losing the boys."
It was mentioned during trial that the Kvalvogs have a new son who is almost a year old, and Bryant said Friday his clients still have him "to live for."
- Trial starts in wrongful death suit involving brothers killed in I-94 crash; parents seek $82.9M
- Former weight room coach voices regret for urging young athlete to take trip that turned deadly for Kvalvog brothers
- Former Park Christian coach says he wasn't under contract when traffic crash claimed lives of athlete brothers
An attorney who represented Park Christian School and Lee declined to comment immediately following the verdict.
The main questions the jurors had to answer after the week-long trial was whether the tournament trip was a school event and, if so, whether Lee, as an agent of the school, was negligent in his supervision of the trip.
Friday's verdict found that the "John Doe" driver of the semi was to blame for the crash and it said the Kvalvog family was entitled to $2.5 million in damages for the loss of each son. The jury had to determine what damages, if any, the family suffered as a result of losing their sons. It's unclear what, if anything, will happen with those damages.
The jury also found that Zach Kvalvog was not negligent in the crash.
During final arguments Friday, Bryant asked jurors to give the family justice and to award them $82.9 million.
He said that amount was picked because it reflects one estimate of how fast the caravan was traveling on its way to the tournament: 82.9 mph.
Evidence presented at trial from both sides indicated the caravan exceeded the 70 mph speed limit that day, though estimates varied from just above 70 mph to more than 80 mph.
Testimony during trial established that the Kvalvog pickup was the third vehicle in a three-vehicle caravan that included Lee, who was driving alone in a car in front of the pickup, and an SUV that led the trio of vehicles.
The SUV was driven by a parent and carried a number of basketball players.
During final arguments Friday, Paul Rocheford, an attorney representing Lee and the school, cited testimony from accident reconstruction experts who said speed was not a factor in the crash.
Instead, Rocheford placed most if not all of the blame for the crash on the semi involved.
Rocheford also asserted that the trip was not a school activity and he listed a number of reasons, including that it happened outside of the regular basketball season and he said at the time Lee was not under contract with Park Christian School.
In his closing argument, Bryant countered Rocheford's assertions with details that included the fact the caravan left from the school parking lot and indications that it was Lee who scheduled the trip and paid for associated costs.
Bryant said Lee was in charge of the trip to the point that when Connor Kvalvog arrived at the school the morning the group left for Wisconsin, Lee had the younger Kvalvog brother go inside the school and change into clothes that reflected his Park Christian affiliation.
Experts testifying for the defense Friday stated that the order of the vehicles in the caravan had nothing to do with who got hurt, asserting the semi could have just as easily encroached on the first or second vehicle in the caravan.
By way of answer, Bryant said in his closing: "Well, Josh Lee didn't get hit by the semi."
Rocheford told jurors that if it was determined damages were called for, he suggested $1 million might be a reasonable figure.
Bryant said the $82.9 million figure the plaintiffs were asking for was a number "pegged to the actions of Park Christian."
Lee and Park Christian School were 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.
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.