Jason Ravnsborg hit and killed Joseph Boever. A legal analysis of the fatal crash and the role played by Sheriff Mike Volek
South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg hit and killed Joseph Boever
On September 12, 2020, South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg hit and killed a pedestrian on a rural highway in the middle of the night. The death of Joseph Boever, 55, has made national and international headlines and has been followed by numerous high-powered news agencies, including the Argus Leader,i CBS,ii Fox News,iii the Independent,iv the New York Daily News,v The New York Post,vi NPR,vii The South Dakota Standard,viii and USA Today.ix
The ghoulish and shocking details of the fatal crash continue to emerge while the country watches with rapt attention. The case and the Attorney General himself are currently under investigation and close scrutiny by all who demand answers to unsettling questions.
Although the case has clear criminal implications, personal injury attorneys across the country like me are holding their breath in anticipation of civil claims and litigation. Although I do not live or work in South Dakota and am not intimately familiar with her state and local laws, there seems to be a high probability that particular civil court claims will be forthcoming.x The most logical civil claim would be against South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg for wrongful death, but an interesting twist and consideration is whether the local Sheriff and/or the Sheriff’s Department could be held civilly liable as well.
In this article, I consider the alleged facts as reported in the media in relation to possible civil claims and litigation that could arise from the fatal crash.
Facts of the Fatal Crash
The basic facts of this tragedy as described by local and national news agencies include a written statement to the public by Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg himself.xi According to his own published statement, the Attorney General left a diner that evening after having a meal with friends. While driving down a deserted two-land road, he hit something with his car which he believed may have been a deer. Jason Ravnsborg actually hit a pedestrian named Joseph Boever who was found dead by the side of the road the next morning.
Although these basic facts are disturbing enough on their own, additional information from the news reports and the Attorney General’s published statement add fuel to the fire. When Jason Ravnsborg crashed into something late September 12th, he stopped and called 911. In response to his call, the local Hyde County Sheriff, Mike Volek, drove to the scene from his own home located near the crash site to take a report.
The Initial Search
Jason Ravnsborg claims that he and Sheriff Mike Volek searched the area, but neither man discovered anything in or around the roadway that night. After what appears to be a brief search, Sheriff Mike Volek lent Jason Ravensborg his own personal car for the drive home while he waited for the tow truck to haul the severely damaged car away from the scene. According to reports, at least one air bag deployed, the windshield was smashed, and the car was undriveable.
The Second Search
The next morning, on Sunday September 13, 2020, while returning to Sheriff Mike Volek’s house to return the personal vehicle, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg noticed debris still in the road from his car and stopped to look. Allegedly, it was only at that time that he found Joseph Boever’s body lying in a low ditch by the highway. After locating Joseph Boever, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg continued driving to Sheriff Mike Volek’s home where he alerted the sheriff to his findings. It appears that Joseph Boever had been walking on or by the highway the night before in search of help after leaving his damaged truck in a ditch near the scene of the subsequent fatal crash.
“I have no idea…yeah…it could be…I mean…it was right in the roadway.”
Currently, the South Dakota Highway Patrol, investigators from North Dakota, and other law enforcement agencies outside of the Hyde County and their Sheriff’s Department are investigating the case.
One month after the suspicious accident, the state released the recorded 911 call the Attorney General made that night.xii During the call, Jason Ravnsborg can be heard immediately telling the dispatcher, “I’m the Attorney General. And I am…I don’t know…I hit something.” He gives his location and says that he hit something that “was in the middle of the road.” He then told the dispatcher that even though he was not injured, “my car sure as hell is” and “it sure hit me…smashed my windshield.” When the dispatcher asks whether he hit a deer, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg responded, “I have no idea…yeah…it could be…I mean…it was right in the roadway.” The dispatcher promises to send the sheriff from his home to the scene to take a report.
Although I am not an expert in accident scene reconstruction or police investigations, videos and pictures of the accident scene, taken in conjunction with the 9-1-1 recording, indicate that there may be more to the story than Jason Ravnsborg has told the public.
Questions Surrounding the Circumstances of Joseph Boever’s Death
As a civil attorney, the two most important questions to me from this story are:
- Why did Attorney General Jason Ravbsorg and Sheriff Mike Volek not find Joseph Boever’s body the night of the accident?
- When did Jason Boever die?
These two questions form the crux of evidence that would prove who contributed to Joseph Boever’s death and who can be sued.
There are two main players in this story – Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and local Sheriff Mike Volek. Both of these men were at the scene of the accident on the night Joseph Boever was allegedly hit, and either or both of them may have contributed to his death.
Did Sheriff Mike Volek contribute to Joseph Boever’s death?
How, you may ask, would Sheriff Mike Volek have contributed to Jospeh Boever’s death?
The two questions I posed above are almost identical to each other in terms of the outcome of their answers, and they can be boiled down to a succinct point: If Joseph Boever did not die upon impact with Attorney General Jason Ravbsorg’s vehicle, then Sheriff Mike Volek and/or the Sheriff’s Department could also be legally responsible for Joseph Boever’s death.
What seems clear is that Joseph Boever’s death was a “wrongful death” – what we in the business call a death negligently caused by someone else. It is not necessarily a criminal claim or charge, because someone can be civilly responsible for the death of another (and therefore owe monetary damages to loved ones) even if they are not criminally responsible for the death. (Think of the O.J. Simpson criminal trial versus his civil trial.) But what is less clear is that same question to which we return: Who is civilly responsible for that death?
Who is civilly responsible for the death of Joseph Boever?
Jason Ravnsborg claims that on the night in question he used the light of his cell phone to search for the deer he thought he hit with the help of Sheriff Mike Volek. Based upon the search both men appear to have made, nothing and no one of any kind or sort was found in the road, by the road, or even near the road on which the Attorney General was driving. They did not find anything that could account for Jason Ravnsborg’s “smashed” windshield and seriously damaged car.
Is it really possible that something so large as to cause such an extensive amount of damage would not, or could not, be found?
How extensive a search did the men make? How was the search conducted? Were Sheriff Department protocols used? What kind of lights were used? Should more help have been called to the scene to aid in the search?
These are all questions that must be posed to determine whether either man, in his personal or governmental position, should have made a larger effort to find the “deer” or even could have found Joseph Boever that night.If the men could have found Mr. Boever on the night of the accident, but did not find him, then our second question is extremely critical:
When did Mr. Boever die?
- If Joseph Boever was already dead by the time Sheriff Mike Volek arrived, then, presumably, the Sheriff and his Department would not be responsible for Mr. Boever’s death. That responsibility would only apply to Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg who was the driver who allegedly struck and killed Mr. Boever.
- If Joseph Boever was not dead when Sheriff Mike Volek arrived, then both Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and Sheriff Mike Volek may be legally responsible for his death.
Autopsy Results are Key
Lawyers can argue whether Joseph Boever could have lived if the men had found him at the scene on the night of the accident instead of the next morning. Depending on the results of the autopsy and the findings for time of death and manner of death, a plaintiff’s attorney could argue that Joseph Boever’s injuries were not severe enough at the time of the accident as to cause him death. If Joseph Boever had just gotten medical care soon after he was struck by the Attorney General, maybe he would still be alive. In that case, the Sheriff Mike Volek’s negligence in locating Joseph Boever on a sad lonely road in the middle of the night could have contributed to Joseph Boever’s death.
A good defense attorney could argue, in contrast, that Joseph Boever would have died from the initial injuries he sustained in the crash whether or not he received medical attention a few minutes, a few hours, or even a few days later. In that case, the responsibility of Joseph Boever’s death could rest solely on the shoulders of Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg .
That leads to the final question that should be answered by law enforcement and lawyers involved in this tragedy: If Sheriff Mike Volek’s actions actually contributed to Joseph Boever’s death, are he and the Sheriff’s Department protected against suit or against a finding of negligence by governmental immunity? If Sheriff Mike Volek’s actions contributed to Joseph Boever’s death, but he is protected from suit by governmental immunity, then he may not be found civilly liable for Joseph Boever’s death at all.
Wrongful Death Claims for Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg and Sheriff Mike Volek
Even if Sheriff Mike Volek and his Department escape wrongful death claims and judgments, that may not relieve them of other civil and administrative actions and sanctions for their behaviors at the scene and after his initial response to the call. Sheriff Mike Volek could still face internal disciplinary actions, criminal charges, and investigations into possible conspiracies to obstruct justice through cover-up schemes and/or tampering with evidence.
I am certainly not saying that any of these actions or ideas are true; I am simply stating that they may be options and actions that we see in the future based upon the interesting details that are being published through the media.
Stay tuned with me for additional facts that are revealed from the ongoing investigation. And in the meantime, feel free to contrast and compare the ideas and theories presented in this article with South Dakota law and with any ensuing cases and suits that are made by law enforcement and attorneys.
Virginia Vile Tehrani
is an Associate Attorney with Greenblatt & Veliev, LLC, which is a litigation law firm based in Rockville, Maryland that provides services to individuals for personal injury, workers’ compensation, and criminal and traffic defense cases. You may reach her at 301-251-8776 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
iEllis, Jonathan and Danielle Ferguson (2020, October 13). Jason Ravnsborg crash update: State releases 911 call, toxicology reports. Argus Leader. Retrieved from https://www.argusleader.com/story/news/2020/10/13/jason-ravnsborg-south-dakota-attorney-general-crash-kristi-noem/5977606002/
iiThe Associated Press (2020, October 14). South Dakota attorney general who struck and killed man on highway told 911 he had “no idea” what he hit. CBS News. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jason-ravnsborg-south-dakota-attorney-general-911-call-deadly-crash/
iiiFordham, Evie (2020, September 14). South Dakota AG involved in fatal crash, reported he hit a deer. Fox News. Retrieved from: https://www.foxnews.com/us/sd-attorney-general-jason-ravnsborg-car-accident
viSpocchia, Gino (2020, October 14). 911 call released from South Dakota attorney general’s fatal hit and run. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/south-dakota-ag-road-crash-hit-run-killing-jason-ravnsborg-911-call-b1036444.html
vFeldman, Kate (2020, September 14). South Dakota AG runs over man, initially claimed he hit deer. New York Daily News. Retrieved from https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/ny-south-dakota-attorney-general-deer-ravnsborg-20200914-ycziz35ym5endgbvpwkvlukcty-story.html
viMiller, Joshua Rhett (2020, September 14). South Dakota AG thought he hit a deer when he fatally struck man on highway: cops. New York Post. Retrieved from: https://nypost.com/2020/09/14/south-dakota-ag-involved-in-deadly-crash-after-gop-event/
viiBrakkton Booker, (2020, September 15). S. D.’s Attorney General fatally strikes man with car, says he thought he hit a deer. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/09/15/913100631/s-d-s-attorney-general-fatally-strikes-man-with-car-says-he-thought-he-hit-a-dee
viiiLawrence, Tom with Letti Lister and Mark Watson (2020, September 20). Fatal crash scene near Highmore, SD, offers clues as family seeks to understand why Joe Bowever was killed. The South Dakota Standard. Retrieved from https://www.sdstandardnow.com/home/fatal-crash-scene-near-highmore-sd-offers-clues-as-family-seeks-to-understand-why-joe-boever-was-killed
ixSneve, Joe (2020, September 14). South Dakota AG struck, killed a pedestrian with car; initially said he thought he hit a deer, officials say. USA Today. Retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/09/14/jason-ravnsborg-told-authorities-he-thought-he-hit-deer-south-dakota-ag/5794312002/
x*Disclaimer: I am not an attorney in South Dakota; I do not know any facts of the case and investigation other than what has been reported in the news; and I do not represent any of the persons or parties in this case. This is a legal review by an outside attorney discussing only the potential ramifications of the recent accident in South Dakota by a significant government official and is not meant to be a final or definitive analysis or judgment of the case.
xiSee, e.g., Booker, Brakkton (2020, September 15). S. D.’s Attorney General fatally strikes man with car, says he thought he hit a deer. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/09/15/913100631/s-d-s-attorney-general-fatally-strikes-man-with-car-says-he-thought-he-hit-a-dee.
xiiAs quoted and summarized by Ellis, Jonathan and Danielle Ferguson (2020, October 13). Jason Ravnsborg crash update: State releases 911 call, toxicology reports. Argus Leader (providing an audio version and transcript of the actual 9-1-1 call). Retrieved from https://www.argusleader.com/story/news/2020/10/13/jason-ravnsborg-south-dakota-attorney-general-crash-kristi-noem/5977606002/; The Associated Press, South Dakota attorney general who struck and killed man on highway told 911 he had “no idea” what he hit. CBS News (citing clips of the 911 call). Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jason-ravnsborg-south-dakota-attorney-general-911-call-deadly-crash/; and Spocchia, Gino (2020, October 14). 911 call released from South Dakota attorney general’s fatal hit and run. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/south-dakota-ag-road-crash-hit-run-killing-jason-ravnsborg-911-call-b1036444.html