Woods’ wrong­ful death case: When are bars re­spon­si­ble?

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Front Page - By Marc Freeman

Palm Beach County As golf leg­end Tiger Woods now con­tends with a new wrong­ful death law­suit sur­round­ing his restau­rant, there’s a big ques­tion: Who’s at fault when a bar serves drinks to some­one who dies in a crash?

Is it the bar­tender? Is it the bar or restau­rant? What about blam­ing it on the per­son who drank too much?

Ex­perts say Florida laws clearly de­fine how the courts must han­dle cases like the one just slapped on the 2019 Masters cham­pion, his name­sake busi­ness in Jupiter, and his girl­friend, Erica Her­man, who runs the place.

The par­ents of Ni­cholas Immes­berger, who died at age 24 in a De­cem­ber car crash, told re­porters Tues­day they are hope­ful a jury one day will hold Woods re­spon­si­ble.

Woods, who just last week be­came a Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Freedom re­cip­i­ent, ac­knowl­edged the lit­i­ga­tion dur­ing his own news con­fer­ence ahead of the PGA Cham­pi­onship in Farmingdale, N.Y.

“We’re all very sad that Nick passed away,” Woods said. “It was a ter­ri­ble night, a ter­ri­ble end­ing. And we feel bad for him

and his en­tire fam­ily. It’s very sad.”

Is Woods in le­gal jeop­ardy?

In the old days, it was cut and dry: You could never sue a bar. This was based on the prin­ci­ple un­der com­mon law that the li­a­bil­ity was squarely on the per­son drink­ing the al­co­hol — not the place sell­ing it.

Yet over the past half­cen­tury or so, state law­mak­ers be­gan al­low­ing some key ex­cep­tions.

First, there was a land­mark 1963 Florida Supreme Court de­ci­sion that al­lowed civil law­suits con­cern­ing al­co­hol sales to mi­nors. Then in 1980, the state Leg­is­la­ture passed a law that lets peo­ple sue busi­nesses for serv­ing any­one ad­dicted to al­co­hol who winds up hurt or dead.

So while bars are protected from most wrong­ful death law­suits, Immes­berger’s fam­ily and their at­tor­neys be­lieve the law is on their side.

They say Immes­berger, who worked as a bar­tender at The Woods Jupiter restau­rant, suf­fered from al­co­holism that his co-work­ers knew all about.

The law­suit claims that on Dec. 10, Immes­berger drank at the bar for three hours af­ter fin­ish­ing a shift, and then got be­hind the wheel of a 1999 Chevy Corvette.

While driv­ing north on Fed­eral High­way in Martin County, he lost con­trol of the car, crashed and was killed.

Immes­berger had a blood-al­co­hol level of .256, or more than three times the 0.08 le­gal limit to drive, ac­cord­ing to personal in­jury at­tor­neys Craig Gold­en­farb and Spencer Ku­vin.

They con­tend The Woods care­lessly ig­nored Immes­berger’s drink­ing prob­lem and “fu­eled it by over-serv­ing him al­co­hol to the point of se­vere in­tox­i­ca­tion and then send­ing him out to his car to drive home.”

Mary Katherine Belowsky, Immes­berger’s mother, said she be­lieves the es­tab­lish­ment “failed” her son.

“They served him un­til he couldn’t walk,” she said.

Civil at­tor­ney Matthew Sch­wenke of West Palm Beach, who has rep­re­sented vic­tims’ fam­i­lies in claims against bars, said there are a few steps be­fore such a law­suit can get be­fore a jury.

There has to be clear proof about the per­son’s drink­ing his­tory, and that the bar was fully aware of it.

“A plain­tiff in this sit­u­a­tion needs to prove that the per­son who be­came ine­bri­ated was ha­bit­u­ally ad­dicted to al­co­hol,” said Sch­wenke, who is not con­nected to the Woods case. This can in­volve gath­er­ing a per­son’s bar tabs over time, through credit card state­ments. Also:

“Did the bar­tenders or the own­ers know the per­son?” Sch­wenke said. “Did they know his drink of choice? You know, was he Norm from Cheers? Facts like that.”

Personal in­jury lawyer Lau­rence M. Krutchik, of Mi­ami, said Woods’ side would likely lean on a state law called the “al­co­hol or drug de­fense,” if a judge al­lows the case to go to trial.

This law re­stricts dam­age pay­outs if the jury makes two find­ings. First, the jury must de­ter­mine that the blood-al­co­hol level of the per­son su­ing the bar was above the le­gal limit. Then, there must be a de­ter­mi­na­tion that “the plain­tiff was more than 50 per­cent at fault” in the case.

Krutchik said if that hap­pens, the per­son su­ing the bar “gets noth­ing.”

“That’s go­ing to be the real bat­tle­ground in that case,” he said.

Ku­vin, co-coun­sel for Immes­berger’s es­tate, also made an al­le­ga­tion that The Woods has in­ten­tion­ally deleted video sur­veil­lance footage of Immes­berger drink­ing on the af­ter­noon be­fore he died.

“We have, through our in­ves­ti­ga­tion, un­cov­ered ev­i­dence to show the bar knew what hap­pened, they knew about the crash that night, and shortly there­after that video ev­i­dence was then de­stroyed and deleted off the servers they have at The Woods,” Ku­vin said.

At­tor­neys for Tiger Woods have not yet filed any re­sponse to the law­suit.

Belowsky, Immes­berger’s mom, told re­porters that she would like for the case to put every bar or restau­rant that serves beer and liquor on no­tice.

“I’m hop­ing that the restau­rants and the bars take note and re­al­ize when some­one is im­paired and they can’t drive, so it doesn’t hap­pen to some­one else,” she said. “It’s a tragedy.”

MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY

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