Bissigs face jury trial over fatal auto accident

Scott Condon

The parents of two Aspen-area youth who were killed in a 1997 Memorial Day car crash will try convince a jury this week that the driver, who survived, should pay them damages.

The parents of Danny Axtell and Norris Hill filed civil lawsuits two years ago against Danny Bissig and his father, Freddi Bissig. The lawsuits, which were merged for the trial, allege that the younger Bissig was negligent by driving recklessly and at a high rate of speed down Castle Creek Road.

The defendants’ attorneys have countered that Axtel and Hill were also negligent because they, like Bissig, illegally bought and drank alcohol.

Bissig was driving a 1996 Nissan Maxima on Castle Creek Road shortly before midnight May 26, 1997, when he lost control. The car tumbled 200 feet down an embankment, crashing into the Marolt Ranch apartments.

Axtell, then 20, and Hill, 19, died of multiple injuries. Another passenger Celia Cockshott, was hospitalized for eight days before recovering.

The Colorado State Patrol determined in its investigation that Bissig was driving about 97 mph in a zone posted at 30 mph. Blood tests determined that Bissig had been drinking before the accident.

He was eventually convicted of criminally negligent homicide and for driving with ability impaired. He was sentenced to 90 days in the Pitkin County Jail on both counts, but the sentences were served concurrently.

At the time of his sentencing, Bissig expressed remorse and said, “I messed up completely.”

The civil trial, which starts today with jury selection, is scheduled to last at least three days, assuming a settlement hasn’t been reached. It’s in the court of Pitkin County District Judge Peter Craven.

The lawsuits were filed by William Axtell and Joann Mary Connington, parents of Daniel Axtel, and by Sylvia Bringolf-Smith, mother of Norris Hill.

A trial management order, a document filed with the court by the attorneys in the case to help the judge prepare for the trial, indicates that Bissig’s negligence isn’t an issue. Instead the attorneys will battle over whether the plaintiffs’ sons were also negligent, and whether Bissig faces any liability.

“The Court has determined as a matter of law that Daniel F. Bissig was negligent and careless in the operation of his vehicle,” said a statement of claim by the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “Further, the Court has determined as a matter of law that as a direct and proximate cause of the negligence of Daniel F. Bissig, plaintiffs suffered grief, pain, suffering, emotional distress, and loss of companionship.”

The trial management order shows that the Bissig’s attorneys contend the plaintiffs’ sons assumed the risks of injuries and, therefore, so did the parents.

“The recklessness and statutory violations of Plaintiffs’ decedents in illegally purchasing and consuming alcoholic beverages, which is imputed to Plaintiffs, bars recovery,” the trial management order information prepared by the defendants’ attorneys said.

They also claimed that Colorado law limits the amounts the plaintiffs can recover.

The lawsuits of the parents also initially named the Acme Bar and Grill Inc. and the Flying Dog Brew Pub Inc. as negligent for serving Bissig, Axtell and Hill alcohol even though they were underage.

The bars have been dropped from the suit for reasons that weren’t disclosed. Legal sources have said it’s also impossible to prove the negligence of bars. It must be shown that they “willfully and knowingly” served underage patrons.


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