Suit over death of St. Thomas student is settled

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 15, 2011 - 9:03 AM

Josh Gunderson's choking death in Puerto Vallarta was deemed accidental, but his family sued, alleging that negligence by others played a role.

With a quiet settlement this week, 18 months of litigation have ended in a wrongful-death lawsuit involving a University of St. Thomas hockey player whose body was found in a Mexico hotel room two years ago.

The agreement, terms of which were not disclosed, came just as a trial was set to begin in Hennepin County District Court, pitting the family of 20-year-old Josh Gunderson against mixed-martial arts fighter Zachery Jensen, 28, of Hopkins. Minnetonka businessman Jason Jones, formerly a co-defendant, settled with the Gunderson family about three weeks ago.

Although Mexican authorities deemed Gunderson's March 24, 2009, death in a Puerto Vallarta Sheraton bathroom accidental, Gunderson's mother, Elizabeth Gunderson Koll of Stillwater, filed the lawsuit nine months later, alleging her son died due to negligence by Jensen and Jones.

Gunderson died in the hotel room of Jensen and St. Thomas classmate Ashley Jones, who had invited Gunderson along on the trip. The three had separate beds.

Gunderson's family said Jensen went along as a bodyguard for Ashley Jones, but attorneys for Jensen say he was not there as an employee, but rather a friend of Ashley Jones' father, Jason Jones. The elder Jones owned Sterling Systems, an industrial and commercial cleaning firm. Sterling Systems initially was named a defendant in the lawsuit but was later dropped.

Jensen's attorney, Steve Sitek, said his client still maintains he did nothing to contribute to Gunderson's death, and he continues to express sympathy to the family for their loss.

"For everyone's sake it was best to have the case resolved without the spectacle of a trial," Sitek said. "Just for the sake of the family, for the sake of Zak and Ashley. It was a very difficult case for everyone."

Messages left for Jones' and Gunderson Koll's attorneys were not returned.

Jensen told authorities that after they returned from a late night at various bars, he awoke to find a drunken Gunderson on top of a sleeping Ashley Jones. He claimed he grabbed him by the shirt and led him to the bathroom and closed the door. Later, he heard a loud noise. When he went to check on Gunderson, he found him dead on his back, his skin blue.

A short time later, Ashley Jones packed a suitcase and left for the airport, despite attempts by hotel staff to keep her there. Jensen spent two days in a Mexican jail before he was released without charges.

Two autopsies found that Gunderson died from choking on vomit and had suffered a concussion. He had bruises and cuts on his head and some alcohol in his blood. An autopsy in Minnesota concluded that he choked "due to neck compression associated with a struggle." Jensen's attorneys disputed those findings.

Sitek said Jensen has moved on and is continuing to practice mixed martial arts while completing his college degree. He appeared on the Spike TV reality show "The Ultimate Fighter."

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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