Tuesday, March 29, 1994
Harlan Main Street; Henscheid
found not at fault by jury
Eight-person jury deliberates for
three hours before rendering its verdict Friday
BOB BJOIN, News Editor
HARLAN -- An eight-person jury
took only three hours last Friday evening, March 25 to reach a
verdict of "not at fault" in the combined civil lawsuits Charles
and Judith Summers et. al. against Harlan Main Street and Joni
Harlan Main Street and Joni Henscheid
were the remaining defendants in two lawsuits which initially had
as many as 25 defendants, but they were whittled to only three
defendants last week after many negotiations, dismissals and/or
out-of-court settlings. In addition, during the course of the
trial the court dismissed Jeron Henscheid and the Kaleidoscope as
defendants leaving only Harlan Main Street and Joni Henscheid as
defendants in the cases.
The jury apparently adjourned at
approximately 8 p.m. Friday night after deliberating since 4 p.m.
that after noon, with a break for dinner. The verdict was
announced at 9 a.m. Monday morning, March 28.
"Certainly on behalf of my clients
and the people of downtown Harlan, I'm pleased," said William
E. Gast, attorney for the defendants. "This establishes for
the second time, and a second jury has confirmed that it was Holly
Thomsen and Holly Thomsen alone who caused this tragic accident."
Attorneys for the Summers', Bob
Kohorst and Greg Sieman, were unavailable for comment on the
verdict Monday morning.
After more than two weeks of
testimony, the jury found that Henscheid and Harlan Main Street
were not at fault for the injuries suffered by Matthew Summers in
an automobile crash in the summer of 1991. In addition it was
determined by the jury that The Old Westside Lounge was not at
fault as well, although the Westside Lounge was not a defendant in
these cases. The jury found Holly Thomsen, the driver of the
vehicle, which allegedly crossed the center-line and struck the
Summers car that June 3, 1991 evening, to be 100 percent at fault
for the injuries.
Thomsen also was not a defendant in
the two cases. Attorneys during the trial said Thomsen allegedly
had previously settled out of court with the Summers. No
settlement amount was given.
Under the jury's verdict, the
Summers will receive no money. They had sought as much as $10
million in damages resulting from the accident, including past
medical expenses of $760,000 or more, past and future earnings,
pain and suffering and past and future loss of body and mind.
During the course of the trial,
attorneys for the plaintiffs attempted to convince the jury that
Henscheid and Harlan Main Street were at fault because Thomsen
allegedly obtained alcohol at the Harlan Main Street function, and
that Henscheid allegedly supplied alcohol to Thomsen at the
Attorney for the plaintiffs, Greg
Sieman, in his closing arguments called the accident a collision,
and that Thomsen's vehicle that night was a "chemical bomb fueled
by alcohol." He said that bomb came from the Harlan Main Street
“Certainly on behalf of my clients
and the people of downtown Harlan, I'm pleased.”
William E. Gast,
attorney for Harlan Main
Street and Joni Henscheld
"Each drink provided to Holly Thomsen
built the bomb, and built the bomb and built the bomb," he said.
"Alcohol from the first drink (Holly F. Thomsen had that night) at
the time of the crash was a cause of the crash and was a cause for
Sieman said Holly Thomsen could only
have gotten alcohol from the event that night. "How does an
18-year-old obtain alcohol," he questioned? "We know it's
against the law. That had to come from beer supplied by Harlan
Main Street and Joni Henscheid...acting as (an agent) for Harlan
Sieman urged the jury to use common
sense in reviewing the case, and asked for fairness and rightness.
Bill Gast, attorney for Harlan
Main Street and Henscheid, refuted Sieman's plea for common sense,
urging the jury only to look at the evidence. He said the case
was a matter of responsibility. He said Holly Thomsen was the one
who had the most responsibility here.
"Holly Thomsen had a responsibility
not to get herself drunk," Gast said in closing arguments.
"Matt was totally innocent here. He didn't deserve it and didn't
ask for it. But he did deserve to have Holly here to see what she
did, and you (the jury) deserved to have Holly here to explain.
"Nobody's going to argue that Holly
was a bomb that night. We just don't know where it came from."
Gast said there was evidence
that Thomsen had as many as 12-14 beers or the equivalency
thereof, but it wasn't known where it came from, the key fact, and
it didn't come from Henscheid or Harlan Main Street.
Gast urged the jury to deliver
a fair verdict.
"Please turn this town loose from
this horrible nightmare that's lasted almost three years," he
After the jury exonerated his
clients, Gast again reiterated that Thomsen was the one at
fault, and not his clients. He called the plea bargain
arrangement she received for the dropping of the DWI charge "a
sweet deal" and said it was an ill-conceived and
He said she never should have been
able to escape responsibility for her actions by accusing others
of supplying her with alcohol.
Thomsen allegedly could not be found
to testify during the course of the trial, a point Gast
said may have had an effect on the jury's decision. "The jury was
entitled to look Holly in the eye, and when they weren't, it
didn't give them much comfort in the truth of her deposition
(which was read during the course of the trial)," Gast
Gast said another key point in
the trial was when Henscheid took the stand in her own defense.
"The primary thrust of the plaintiffs case was a personal attack
on the character of Joni Henscheid," Gast said. "The
lawyers set themselves up so much ... that when she testified ...
her obvious integrity and truthfulness virtually destroyed their
Gast also said during the
closing arguments last Friday, for the first time the plaintiffs
lack of evidence "came into clear focus," and he thought it might
be a quick verdict because of that.
"I was not surprised in the slightest
(about the quick verdict)," he said. "As was plainly (seen) in
closing arguments, there was a critical lack of evidence against
any of these people, especially Joni. I (then) thought it would be
a quick verdict."
Henscheid, through her attorney, said
she hopes this trial is put behind the community. Gast, on
behalf of Henscheid, said many people have been damaged through
these lawsuits. There were a bunch of volunteers attempting to
do something good for the community here, he said, and these
lawsuits damaged the volunteerism and the Harlan Main Street
organization. "The people of this community should wake up to
what's happened and support Harlan Main Street and the downtown,"
"I do believe under the
circumstances, for all the people who may have assumed there was
some truth to Holly Thomsen's story, those people do owe Jerry and
Joni a big apology, and I see that Jerry and Joni will be willing
Attorneys for the Summers' were not
on hand at the verdict reading Monday morning, and could not be
reached for comment
Nearly three years…
The jury's decision brings to an end
one of the county's most publicized cases. The combined cases got
underway on March 15 after years of depositions and discussions.
The two lawsuits alleged that on June
3, 1991 at approximately 11 p.m. there was an accident between a
vehicle driven by Matthew Summers, the son of Charles and Judith
Summers, Harlan, and a second vehicle driven by Thomsen, 18 at the
time, Avoca. The accident occurred on U.S. Highway 59 about 1 1/2
miles north of Avoca.
The suits alleged Thomsen drove left
of center colliding with the Summers vehicle, and at the time of
the accident she allegedly was intoxicated. As a result, Summers
suffered massive personal injuries.
Thomsen was originally charged with
Operating While Intoxicated, but the charge was dismissed as per a
plea bargain agreement with the county. She was found guilty, of
a second charge, Driving on the Wrong Side of a Two-Way Highway.
The original lawsuits alleged that on
that June evening, the Harlan Main Street organization sponsored a
"Pigout" event at which time employees of downtown Harlan were
invited to a pork dinner, with free beer offered at a vacant
downtown store. The suits alleged that Harlan Main Street,
through its agents, did otherwise supply liquor, wine or beer to
Thomsen, knowing or having reasonable cause to believe her to be
under the legal age.
Gast said he does not know if
there will be an appeal of the jury's decision.