Jury: Passenger shares blame in deadly accident

Tim Mutrie

A jury found yesterday that a passenger who was killed in a Memorial Day car crash in 1997 shared equal responsibility with the driver for the deadly wreck.

After deliberating for less than 45 minutes, the six-person jury hearing the Bissig civil trial returned a judgment finding both parties equally negligent in the auto accident that resulted in the deaths of two young Aspen men.

The jury awarded no damages – economic or otherwise – to plaintiff Sylvia Bringolf-Smith, mother of Norris Hill. Hill, along with Danny Axtell, died in the rollover accident off Castle Creek Road the night of May 26. Hill was 19 at the time.

“We really appreciate the efforts of the jury,” said Hugh Wise, attorney for the Bissigs, following the judgment. “It was a very tough case with a lot of personal issues.”

During closing arguments, James True, attorney for Bringolf-Smith, asked the jury to award his client approximately $600,000 in total damages, based on Bissig’s negligence. He declined to comment following the three-day trial.

Bringolf-Smith and the parents of Danny Axtell had filed suit against Danny Bissig, Hill’s former best friend and the driver of the car. They claimed that Bissig’s negligence resulted in the fatal wreck. The suit sought compensatory damages and also named Bissig’s father, Freddi. Last Friday, however, Axtell’s parents withdrew from the suit after a undisclosed settlement was struck.

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

Following yesterday’s judgment, Bringolf-Smith approached Danny Bissig and the two shared a brief, peaceful exchange before exiting the courtroom. Bringolf-Smith and Danny and Freddi Bissig declined to comment on the judgment.

The jury evidently sided with Wise’s interpretation of the events leading up to the accident – that Bissig and Hill were both irresponsible in their actions.

“They both consumed alcohol that night to the extent that it impaired their judgment,” Wise said during closing arguments.

Wise said all three boys and passenger Celia Cockshott consumed alcohol the night of the wreck. However, it was “Norris Hill who suggested that they go on this drive so he could drive Daniel Bissig’s new car. That’s what put this in action.”

Wise added that Hill drove the vehicle for most of the trip, until a short time before the accident. Bissig, according to Wise, grew concerned with the speed at which Hill was driving and took over behind the wheel.

Wise never disputed that Bissig was driving way too fast on the winding road. He said both young men shared equally in the risks they were taking that night.

True interpreted the events leading up to the accident quite differently.

“It would be a huge injustice to suggest that a passenger in a car … going 97 miles per hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone had any liability in what eventually happened,” he said. “If in fact Norris Hill gave up the wheel to Mr. Bissig, then he was doing the right thing.”