When Caitlin Clark died after a motorcycle crash last August, the 19-year-old Lexington County woman joined a sad and growing list of South Carolinians killed by drunks who leave bars too intoxicated to drive safely.
James Gainey Jr., the motorcycle driver whose dangerous driving killed Clark, was convicted of DUI and reckless homicide. He is now serving five years in state prison.
That wasn’t the last legal action in that case.
Across South Carolina, relatives of people killed by drivers who’ve become intoxicated in the state’s bars and restaurants are suing, alleging those establishments knowingly kept on serving alcohol to someone like Gainey who was unfit to drive.
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It’s a growing problem.”
Columbia area attorney Todd Ellis, who is suing a Vista bar in connection with the death of a 19-year-old woman.
“It’s a growing problem,” said Todd Ellis, the attorney representing Caitlin Clark’s father in his lawsuit against the company that runs the Tin Roof bar at 1022 Senate St. in Columbia’s Vista.
“Monitoring and limiting customers’ drinks is at odds with many bars’ profit motives to sell alcohol as fast as you can to as many customers as you can without regard to the customers’ intoxication levels,” Ellis said.
No date has been set for the Tin Roof trial. The bar’s lawyers, Mark Gende and Bill Sweeny, didn’t return calls.
John Durst, president of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, says many of the state’s drinking establishments know they can do better in training staff members to recognize and manage customers showing signs of intoxication.
“We know there are vulnerabilities in what we do that need to be addressed,” said Durst, whose 1,400-member group will be backing legislation in the General Assembly in January that would require training be given to staff members in drinking establishments.
“We’re going to be pushing for that again,” Durst said.
The training would teach servers and managers how to check IDs for age, recognize signs of intoxication and diplomatically tell customers they can’t have any more alcoholic beverages. Some public and private programs are available to teach bar workers how to deal with excessive drinking, but those programs are voluntary and aren’t widely used, Durst said.
Seventeen states require drinking establishments to provide mandatory safe alcohol service training, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Last year, the state Senate considered a bill called Alli’s Law that would have required mandatory training for bar and restaurant workers who serve alcohol to recognize signs of intoxication and to slow or halt the serving of booze to those customers.
The bill, which died in committee, was named after Alli Cousins, an Upstate high school senior who was served multiple drinks at a local bar and got into a fatal crash while driving home.
I am far too aware of needless injury and death that results from people being served who are already intoxicated, or at the point of intoxicatation.”
State Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who plans to prefile a bill requiring mandatory training for alcohol servers.
State Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, expects to file a similar bill for the upcoming Legislative session.
“I am far too aware of needless injury and death that results from people being served who are already intoxicated, or at the point of intoxication,” said Rankin, a lawyer.
In fact, Rankin said, his biggest jury verdict – $4 million – was a bar that overserved a driver who killed an Horry man. The victim was pinned in his vehicle and was burned alive, Rankin said.
No statistics are kept on the number of people who sue bars in this kind of case. But they appear to be numerous. Lawyers like Rankin contacted for this story confirmed it’s not unusual to have these cases.
“I’ve been involved in far too many cases where this kind of thing happened, and in fact, I’m in the middle of two right now,” Rankin said. “It is rampant.”
“I’m filing one of these lawsuits against a bar later today,” Greenville attorney Wally Fayssoux said last week. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there weren’t at least 10 or 12 such lawsuits pending in most counties, especially the large counties. I know there are 10 or 15 pending in Greenville.”
Last fall, Fayssoux and fellow lawyers Butch Bowers and Paul Landis convinced a Richland County jury to award $3.85 million in damages from the Loose Cockaboose Sports Bar. The lawyers’ case convinced the jury that Loose Cockaboose had not only served liquor after hours, but served an obviously intoxicated Billy Patrick Hutto, a repeat DUI offender.
Several hours after a drinking binge at Loose Cockaboose, Hutto ran a red light going 60 mph and slammed into a car driven by David Longstreet in Lexington. Longstreet was taking his family to church; his daughter, Emma, was killed. Hutto is now serving a 10-year prison sentence for felony DUI.
“There certainly should be required required mandatory training of people who work in these bars,” said Fayssoux.
It’s not easy to win these lawsuits, Fayssoux said, and a lawyer usually must come up with a combination of evidence from video surveillance cameras, credit card receipts showing the times each individual drink was served, and witnesses to convince a jury to award damages.
In a 2015 widely publicized legal settlement against a Five Points bar, Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian used credit card receipts and video surveillance cameras to get a $975,000 wrongful death settlement from Jake’s Bar and Grill in the death of Justin Timmerman, 24, who was crossing Harden Street when he was struck and killed by a speeding intoxicated driver.
A lawsuit in the case alleged Jake’s employees should have known William Holt Carlen, who drove the SUV that killed Timmerman, was intoxicated but kept serving him. Carlen, son of the late University of South Carolina football coach Jim Carlen, later pleaded guilty to felony DUI and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence. In the settlement, Jake’s admitted no fault.
In August, two Anderson restaurants and a former Anderson University coach were named in a lawsuit in a 2014 drunk-driving crash that killed three people and nearly killed a fourth. The driver, 26-year-old former assistant baseball coach Riley Christopher McDermott, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in April to 18 years in prison.
The lawsuit says McDermott drank a total of 13 beers at the two bars, Hooters of Anderson and The Bench, before the accident.
Lawyer Fayssoux said many people who work in bars are young and don’t always appreciate the consequences of overserving.
“They don’t know about families destroyed and lives altered over an extra couple of beers,” Fayssoux said. “You can’t leave it up to the industry to police themselves.”
The Anderson Independent-Mail contributed.