Trial begins in damage claim for fatal crash

Tim Mutrie

An emotionally charged civil jury trial pitting the mother of a young Aspen man who died in a 1997 auto wreck against his former best friend, who drove the car, began with opening statements yesterday.

Sylvia Bringolf-Smith, mother of Norris Hill, is suing Danny Bissig, who was behind the wheel when her son was killed in the accident on Castle Creek Road, and Bissig’s father, Freddi Bissig. She is seeking damages for her loss.

The case, in 9th Judicial District Court, had at one time included the parents of Danny Axtell, who was also killed in the crash, as plaintiffs against the Bissigs. The two parties settled out of court on Friday for an undisclosed sum.

Hill, who was 19, and the 20-year-old Axtell were killed the night of May 26, 1997, after Bissig’s car careened off of Castle Creek Road and down a 200-foot embankment before crashing into the Marolt Ranch apartments. A third passenger, Celia Cockshott, sustained serious injuries, though she recovered.

Bissig, who had been drinking that night, was later convicted of criminally negligent homicide and driving while his ability was impaired. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

James True, the attorney representing Hill’s mother, told the jury it was Bissig’s negligence that led to the deaths of Axtell and Hill.

“You’ll hear arguments that Norris himself was partly responsible for this tragedy,” said True. “But Danny Bissig was behind the wheel, his foot on the accelerator … Norris’ life was tragically lost by the admitted negligence of Mr. Bissig, and uncomfortable though it may be, we will ask you to measure Sylvia’s grief in terms of losses.”

A trial management order – a document filed by attorneys in the case to help the judge prepare for the trial – indicates Bissig’s negligence is not at issue. What is at issue is whether Norris Hill and Danny Axtell were also negligent, and whether the Bissigs face any liability.

Hugh Wise, attorney for the Bissigs, said Norris Hill was partially negligent and therefore liable.

“Mr. True has said that Mr. Bissig was the designated driver – there’s no doubt that he was the driver, but designated remains to be seen – and the evidence will show that all four young people obtained and consumed alcoholic beverages in bars the night of this event.

“Then, out of boredom, they drove up Castle Creek Road,” Wise continued. “And the evidence will show that Norris Hill was the first driver … until Mr. Bissig became concerned with the speed which Norris Hill was driving and switched positions with him very close in time to the accident.”

Wise, who went on to describe the close relationship between Hill and Bissig, also noted that any economic losses associated with Hill’s death “would be speculative” because of his young age.

“[Bissig’s] consumption of alcohol, careless driving and excessive speed, they were a cause in the accident,” Wise said, “but Norris Hill was a voluntary participant on this ride. The equally careless conduct of Norris Hill and Danny Bissig led to the losses that Mrs. Bringolf-Smith claims.”