A Volvo XC90 driven by Louis Zezeran, the Australian-born founder of the best-known standup comedy organisation in Estonia, collided with a semi-truck’s trailer on a stretch of the Tallinn-Tartu highway that has a 50km/h (30 mph) speed limit; while Zezeran escaped the accident without injuries, a fellow comedian died and the third passenger was hospitalised with the possibly life-changing injuries; a criminal investigation is under way into the exact circumstances.
According to the Estonian police, the accident occurred on the Tallinn-Tartu-Võru-Luhamaa highway on 2 December at 9:30 PM, about 13 kilometres (eight miles) from Tartu, near Kardla village. A 39-year-old man (reportedly a Romanian citizen), driving a Scania and driving toward Tartu, lost control of his lorry due to slippery road and swerved off the road to the left across the oncoming lane. A Volvo XC90, driven by Louis Zezeran, the founder of Comedy Estonia, then collided with the rear of the semi-truck’s trailer (the exact chronology of the collision is subject to investigation).
The front passenger in Zezeran’s car, a 22-year-old Estonian comedian Tambet Sild, died at the scene. Zezeran and another passenger, Caleb Brunick, who sat at the back, were taken to the Tartu University Hospital. The truck driver was uninjured.
Zezeran was released from the hospital after an hour and a half, but Caleb Brunick – a 23-year-old American citizen, who had been living in Estonia since he was 18 and, prior to the accident, was also a stand-up comedian at Comedy Estonia – was in a grave situation. Brunick received a serious brain injury and was in a coma for the first few days. He is still in the hospital, while his American relatives have started a fundraising page to transport him to the US for a treatment that may take years.
According to some people close to Brunick, Zezeran’s and Comedy Estonia’s behaviour and lack of transparency following the accident leaves a lot to be desired.
So what exactly happened afterwards?
On 4 December, Comedy Estonia issued a statement on its official Facebook page where it said the organisation had lost a great friend and comedian in Tambet Sild.
“It’s really hard to describe the pain we are feeling right now. Tambet held a special place in all of our hearts, and we were united by our love of stand-up. Making people laugh was the most important thing in his life and he did it with great dedication. He was the future of Estonian comedy,” the statement said. “The whole Comedy Estonia family feels for Tambet’s family and loved ones and we are here to support them in any way we can at this difficult time.”
The statement noted that “Louis Zezeran, who was driving the vehicle, is out of the hospital and recovering with his family, but we ask for your understanding during this difficult time so that he can recover”.
A short reference was also made about Brunick, albeit without mentioning his name. “There was also a third person in the car, a 23-year-old man, who is currently in hospital and our thoughts and best wishes are with him for a speedy recovery,” Comedy Estonia said. As of writing this article, this was also the last time the organisation mentioned their badly injured colleague, although he has been in the hospital since.
Comedy Estonia concluded its statement with an ominous remark: “We have no further comments to share about what happened.”
Cracking jokes about the accident
However, just a few weeks later, Zezeran cracked a joke about the accident, in the comment section of his YouTube channel, Zez Retro. Replying to one of his followers, who apparently referred to an earlier car accident Zezeran had been involved in, he joked, “Ha yeah man, we were joking here that I am on a mission to somehow destroy every Volvo XC90 in Estonia. Maybe the next one will drop through an ice road or something.”
On 17 December, Zezeran wrote a post on his Instagram account, in which he casually mentioned “the accident” and “the funeral”, without offering any public condolences. “Last night I did my first performance since the accident and it was a fun hosting gig,” the Comedy Estonia founder said.
At the same time, Caleb Brunick was in serious condition in a hospital, and according to a person close to him (who asked for anonymity), neither Zezeran nor anyone else from Comedy Estonia had reached out to check on Brunick or offered any other kind of help. Because Brunick is an American citizen, his family had reportedly only received some institutional support from the US embassy in Tallinn.
Comedy Estonia’s integrity under question mark
Following this information, Estonian World asked Comedy Estonia and Louis Zezeran directly whether they had contacted Brunick’s family and sent their well wishes and whether their organisation would plan any kind of support or fundraising for the injured comedian. We also asked whether it was an appropriate behaviour by Zezeran to crack jokes on the accident that left one dead and another one seriously injured.
Zezeran, who has lived in Estonia for the last ten years, flat out refused. “I consider all of these matters private and thus have no comment,” he replied to our questions.
Merily Viita, the CEO of Comedy Estonia, who took over the day-to-day running of the organisation from Zezeran about a year ago, told Estonian World, “We are not in liberty to disclose any information about the third person in the car because of the wishes of the family who I have been in contact with. In the same post on our social media, we also mentioned that we will not be giving any more comments on the matter,” she said in a written reply.
Viita declined to answer further questions on Zezeran’s public joke about the accident or whether Comedy Estonia would somehow support Brunick.
Instead, she quoted the points 1.5 (The reputation of any individual shall not be unduly harmed without there being sufficient evidence that the information regarding that person is in the public interest.) and 4.8 (When covering crime, court cases and accidents, the journalist shall consider whether the identification of the parties involved is necessary and what suffering it may cause to them. Victims and juvenile offenders shall not be identified as a general rule.) from the ethics code of Estonian journalists in her email.
Zezeran’s apparent care-free attitude and a public joke about the accident offended many people, who are more familiar with Comedy Estonia, and raised ethical questions of whether the comedian and the organisation he founded pretended too soon as if nothing had happened.
“It’s the joking in the comment about past Volvos he has totalled and the possible next time. That’s not black humor, but wanton disregard. All in full view of the anyone who might be reading, such as the father of the American kid. I have a son who will be getting a learner’s permit. I could care less about how much impunity such a driver feels in his own shielded space behind the wheel, and not everyone can afford a top-rated SUV,” one commented in the social media post.
“Louis, you can’t use the line that you’re respecting the privacy of the families if you post stuff like that! If you’re in shock or denial, get some professional help and get off the air,” the post added.
The police investigation
A representative of the Estonian Police and Border Guard told Estonian World that a criminal investigation is under way into the accident, but further details are not yet available.
“The circumstances of the accident are still being clarified and no further information can be provided at this time,” a spokesperson of the police said.
The police also confirmed that the speed limit at the scene of the accident was 50 km/h (30 miles per hour), due to roadworks.
An expert who looked at the photos of the crash scene and asked to comment anonymously, told Estonian World that judging by the damage, the Volvo involved in the accident appears to have been driven over the speed limit.
Indeed, the Volvo XC90 is considered as one of the safest cars on the road. To put it in the perspective: as of 2018, no one had ever died in a Volvo XC90 in the UK – the country of 65 million people – since the first-generation model launched in 2002, according to Thatcham Research.
But it’s important to reiterate here that until the police investigation’s full results, no conclusion can be made.
Fundraising for Caleb Brunick
On 27 January, just before this article was being published, a public fundraising page for Brunick was set up by his American aunt, Elizabeth Hladik, who said that Caleb’s life had “changed abruptly and unfairly”.
“On December 2, 2021, Caleb was a passenger in a vehicle involved in a massive collision on his way back from a comedy gig. His friend succumbed to his injuries, and a motionless Caleb transported to a hospital in Tartu, Estonia. Upon arrival, Caleb revealed a Glasgow Coma Scale of 3, with an unfavorable prognosis. However, the whole-hearted Caleb showed us resilience, strength and faith could persevere,” his aunt wrote on the page.
“Despite enduring severe brain trauma, Caleb has far exceeded expectations. All the doctors, nurses and therapists at Tartu University Hospital have been absolutely wonderful. Still, Caleb’s rehabilitation is limited due to the strong language barrier between him and the staff. At this time, doctors have agreed that Caleb should return to the United States for the best possible outcome as he will be facing years of intense physical, speech and occupational therapy. Due to Caleb’s continuing fragile condition and the distance from Tartu, Estonia to Albany, New York a medical transport will be required to return Caleb home. With permission from his parents, I asked to start a GoFundMe for Caleb to help cover some costs associated with the transport and his long-term care when he comes home.
“Caleb, a young, whole-hearted, man with a spirit to make others laugh, had his life fragmented by a tragic accident. So, I ask, please contribute in any way you can, so Caleb can provide laughter and joy to the world once again.”
As of publishing this article, neither Comedy Estonia or Louis Zezeran had shared Caleb’s fundraising page – at least not publicly.
Cover: A Volvo XC90 driven by Louis Zezeran collided with a semi-truck’s trailer on a stretch of the Tallinn-Tartu highway that has a 50km/h (30 mph) speed limit. Photo by Jürgen Puistaja/Scanpix.