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Omaha, NE 68124

 

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Tel: 402-721-3900

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Tuesday, March 29, 1994

Issue #13

 

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 Henscheid.

 

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.

 

The trial…

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 function.

 

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 "Pigout" event.

 

“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 her intoxication."

 

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 Main Street."

 

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 said.

 

Verdict comments...

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 poorly-con­sidered decision.

 

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 said.

 

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 case."

 

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," he said.

 

"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 to forgive.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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