Judge throws out verdict in Bissig car crash case

Sarah S. Chung

A civil case stemming from a Memorial Day car accident that killed two young Aspenites in 1997 will again go before a jury.

A jury ruled Feb. 9 that Daniel Bissig, the driver of the car, did not have to pay damages to Sylvia Bringol-Smith, the mother of Norris Hill, who was killed in the crash. The jury found that Bissig and Hill were equally at fault for the wreck, which also killed Danny Axtell.

But District Court Judge T. Peter Craven overturned the jury’s ruling last week.

“Taken together, the testimony and admissions [of Bissig] are contrary to and do not support a verdict of equal negligence,” wrote Craven. “Accordingly, the jury verdict is set aside and a new trial is ordered on all issues.”

James True, Bringol-Smith’s attorney, said his client is “pleased with the judge’s decision.” He declined to comment on the specifics of the case, only noting that in the retrial, “things will be changing from the earlier trial.” True also declined to comment on whether he will ask for the same amount in damages – $600,000.

During the May 26, 1997 accident, Bissig failed to negotiate the final turn on Castle Creek Road before Aspen Valley Hospital, and the car plunged down a long embankment and into one of the apartments at Marolt Ranch. Investigators estimated he was driving much faster than the posted speed limit. Hill and Axtell were killed, and passenger Celia Cockshott was hospitalized.

During February’s civil trial, it was revealed that Bissig and all the passengers in his car had been drinking alcohol – thus the finding that all were at fault. But in ordering a retrial, Craven noted that Bissig clearly testified that, “I was behind the wheel. I take full responsibility for that.”

In light of Bissig’s testimony, Craven determined that “even viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to [Bissig] … there is an insufficiency as a matter of law to support the conclusion that the parties were equally negligent.”

After the accident, but before the civil trial, Bissig was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and driving under the influence of alcohol. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Axtell’s parents initially were also plaintiffs in the civil case, but the Axtells withdrew from the suit after an undisclosed settlement was reached.