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Dana Parsons

Alcohol May Have Impaired Their Judgment on Liability

December 17, 1995|Dana Parsons

Here is how the attorney describes the situation:

"The car went off the side of the road and down a long drop. He was really bombed. He passed out in the car, and they went off the road, down an 80-foot ravine and the car totaled out."

From that, you might deduce the attorney is describing a drunk-driving accident.

You would be right.

You might also assume the attorney represents someone else seeking damages from the driver.

You would be wrong.

Rather, the attorney is describing his own client and freely acknowledging that he got drunk at his employer's Christmas party last year. The twist, if you will, is that the driver and his wife, whom the attorney also described as intoxicated that night, are suing the people who gave the party.

I asked attorney Cary Medill of Beverly Hills to explain the lawsuit he filed last week in Orange County Superior Court on behalf of Arthur and Kelly Cruz. Medill was happy to do so, noting that the holiday drinking season is upon us again and that employers have a duty to make sure their employees don't drive home drunk.

Basically, Medill said, the suit alleges that bartenders and management at the National Sports Grill in Buena Park, where Arthur Cruz then worked, should have realized that the Cruzes were getting intoxicated. Then, he said, they should have prevented them from driving off in their inebriated condition.

Was it obvious they were drunk? I asked. "My clients were falling on the dance floor, they were so drunk," Medill said. "All they needed were neon signs saying, 'I'm drunk.' "

I asked Medill how old the Cruzes were at the time. He said Arthur was 32 and Kelly was 25. Medill said witnesses have told him that everyone was drinking, even the bar's managers.

"I guess that's to be expected if you're going to a Christmas party, that the people running it will partake in drinking," Medill said. "But it appears to us that they needed more supervision of the party members, especially if they're serving hard liquor. That's why we feel the manager and bartender have duties to sort of keep an eye on--and if they spot anyone in the room looking kind of tipsy, they've got to make a concerted effort not to let them get behind the wheel. Fortunately, they [the Cruzes] didn't kill anyone, but we see too many cases like this around this time of year."

I asked Medill what level of responsibility Mr. and Mrs. Cruz had for getting blasted at the party.

"They definitely have responsibility," he said. "I'm not saying they're angels. Individuals do have a duty to look out for themselves and try to watch their drinking levels. There's no excuse for them. I feel they're partly to blame here. But I think the person serving drinks--it's their duty if they see someone becoming intoxicated--don't give them further drinks and do everything you can to prevent them from getting behind the wheel."

That'll ruin a lot of office parties, I suggested.

"It'll ruin a lot of parties but save a hell of a lot of lives," Medill said.

The Cruzes sustained various injuries in the accident, but none that are permanent or disabling, Medill said. The suit asks for $500,000 in damages, in addition to other unspecified costs.

I asked if the Cruzes are in any way sheepish about suing someone else for getting drunk.

"They know they're partly to blame," Medill said. The party-goers' responsibility is superseded by the party-throwers', he said, "because it's so foreseeable what's going to happen. You serve Jack Daniels and put someone behind the wheel, you might as well put a loaded gun in their hand and let them fire at random. You just know there's going to be an accident."

Meanwhile, the restaurant's attorney, Richard Handel, didn't want to say much about the suit. For one thing, he said, the restaurant hadn't been served with it yet. He was willing to call it "frivolous litigation" and disputed Medill's interpretation of state law on the subject of liability.

I don't know the law, and I don't know that much about getting drunk either. Call me old-fashioned, but if I go to the office Christmas party, tie one on, then pass out behind the wheel and drive my car into a ditch, I'd be hard-pressed to blame the guy who poured the drinks.

I might be angry he didn't shut me off, but once I sobered up, I'd like to think I'd take a deep breath and say the magic words: "Sorry, my fault."

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