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Grand Forks homeowner not liable for drug-related death, Supreme Court rules

The owner of a Grand Forks house is not responsible for the overdose death of a man who ingested illegal drugs at the house, the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled this week.

But the lone dissenting justice said the issue should have its day in court.

The North Dakota Supreme Court ruled 4-1 Monday in favor of Kenton Anderson, who owns the house at 497 N. 51st St. That's where 18-year-old Christian Allen Bjerk ingested illegal drugs on June 11, 2012, before he died, according to court documents. Bjerk's body was found on the sidewalk several houses away from Anderson's house, according to Herald archives.

"No evidence suggests the harm caused by the drugs was different as a result of the conditions of the house where they were consumed," Justice Jerod Tufte wrote in the Supreme Court ruling. "Here, there was not a close connection between Anderson's conduct and the harm to Christian."

Bjerk's parents, Debra and Keith Bjerk, sued Anderson in Grand Forks District Court, arguing the homeowner knew his house was a frequent site for drug consumption and he could have reasonably foreseen a death happening there. Anderson argued he had no control over the residence at the time of Bjerk's death because he hadn't lived there for three years. Anderson also said he didn't share any "special relationship" with Bjerk.

Anderson's ex-girlfriend, Julie Thorsen, and her children did occupy the home, but there wasn't a written lease between Thorsen and Anderson, nor was Thorsen paying rent, according to court documents. One of Thorsen's children, Nicholas, allegedly bought the illegal drugs Christian Bjerk ingested, according to the opinion.

Anderson and Nicholas Thorsen did not face criminal charges related to Bjerk's death.

Grand Forks Judge Donald Hager summarily dismissed the lawsuit, which led to a review by the Supreme Court.

There is nothing in the record that shows Bjerk purchased any of the drugs at the party, David Thompson, a Grand Forks attorney representing the Bjerks, said during oral arguments in October.

No evidence indicates Anderson facilitated drug-use at his house, that he was involved in the illegal activity or that he knew of any parties at his house that involved drugs, Tufte wrote in the opinion.

"To impose the duty asserted by the Bjerks would place on those in possession or control of property a powerful incentive to refuse entry or occupancy to anyone with a history of drug use," the justice wrote. "A landowner does not reasonably expect to become the police officer or probation officer for all who live on—or merely enter—his property."

Chief Justice Gerald VandeWalle said the Supreme Court should have remanded the case back to District Court for a trial. He argued a jury, not the Supreme Court, should decide whether the facts of a case deem Anderson is liable.

"The evidence of the use of the premises for unlawful drug purposes and the evidence of the owner's knowledge of those facts is sparse," VandeWalle wrote in his dissenting opinion. "However, I believe the inferences which could be drawn from those facts are sufficient to prevent summary judgment."

Christopher Will, who argued the case on Anderson's behalf, said Tuesday he didn't have any comments other than his client was pleased with the outcome of the case.

Thompson said Tuesday he and his clients agree with VandeWalle's opinion. He is investigating other ways to proceed in the case, but he declined to discuss those avenues publicly.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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