$135 Million Jury Verdict for Alcohol Liability
Jury adds $75 million penalty for beer seller
Drunken driver’s victims awarded $135M in all
Thursday, January 20, 2005
In the largest personal injury award in New Jersey in a decade, a jury in Bergen County yesterday ordered the beer concessionaire at Giants Stadium to pay $75 million in punitive damages for selling alcohol to a visibly drunk fan who later caused a car accident that paralyzed a 7-year-old girl.
On Tuesday, the same jury awarded $60 million in compensatory damages to the family of Antonia Verni of Cliffside Park, bringing the total award to $135 million, a figure one expert called “stunning” for an alcohol liability case.
David Mazie, the attorney for the Verni family, said: “Today Antonia Verni finally got the justice she deserved. Hopefully, the jury’s decision will make a difference in the alcohol service at stadiums across the country.”
In its 8-0 ruling, the jury in Superior Court in Hackensack determined that Aramark Corp., a multibillion-dollar international food and beverage company that sells beer at Giants Stadium and hundreds of other venues around the country, showed a “wanton and willful disregard” for others when it irresponsibly sold beer to Daniel Lanzaro, a Cresskill carpenter, on Oct. 24, 1999.
“We are disappointed by the size of the award and we intend to appeal,” said Debbie Albert, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia-based Aramark. She declined further comment.
Superior Court Judge Richard Donohue, who presided over the case, has the authority to reduce or repeal the jury’s decision if he believes it is unfair.
Lanzaro, 36, admitted drinking the equivalent of 16 12-ounce beers, most of them at the stadium, before crashing his truck into the Vernis’ car on Terrace Avenue in Hasbrouck Heights as they drove home from a pumpkin-picking trip.
Throughout the month long trial, Mazie tried to prove to the jury that there was a “culture of intoxication” at Giants Stadium that encouraged Lanzaro’s drunkenness.
Testimony and documents in the case showed Aramark vendors violated a two-beers-per purchase limit more than 100 times in 1999 alone, and that there were fewer than 10 documented instances of vendors cutting off fans. There were also very few reported disciplinary measures taken.
“They don’t do anything because they want to sell beer,” Mazie said yesterday. “They care only about the bottom line and it has to stop.”
Aramark’s attorneys argued there was no proof Lanzaro was served while he was visibly drunk and that he set out to fool the vendors by masking his intoxication. They called Lanzaro, an admitted alcoholic, “one bad apple” among tens of thousands of fans.
“Aramark may not have met its goals but it had policies and procedures in place,” said the company’s attorney, Keith Harris. “It’s not perfect. That doesn’t rise to wanton and willful conduct.”
Ronald and Fazila Verni said last night that they were shocked by the size of the verdict.
“It’s amazing,” Ronald Verni in a telephone interview from their Cliffside Park home. “I think this definitely sends a message that the problem is beyond just Giants Stadium.”
The Vernis said they plan to donate a modest amount of the award to stem-cell research that may lead to a cure for quadriplegics like their daughter, who was 2 when the accident occurred.
The day before determining the punitive damages for Antonia and her mother, who was also injured in the crash, the jury awarded them $60 million in compensatory damages for their medical care, future lost earnings and pain and suffering.
The jury determined Aramark was responsible for half the compensatory damages and all of the punitive damages, bringing the total penalty against the company to $105 million.
Lanzaro, who is serving a five-year jail term for vehicular assault, was held responsible for the other half of the compensatory damages, but he has settled with the Vernis and will not have to pay the award.
The Vernis have settled separate lawsuits with the National Football League, the Giants and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Terms of those settlements have not been disclosed.
The personal injury award is the largest by a New Jersey jury in 10 years, said Jennifer Shannon, managing editor of Jury Verdict Research, a Horsham, Pa., firm that tracks and analyzes nationwide trends in personal injury litigation.
James Mosher, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Enforcement Policy at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Felton, Calif., called the award “stunning.”
“The number is very high,” said Mosher, an expert on alcohol liability law. “I hope that it does lead to some reforms in how alcohol is served in these sporting events, and I think it’s an important message the industry and the public need to hear.
“What the jury is saying is that tragedies like this are clearly preventable.”
To what extent Aramark’s policies may change is unclear, but in testimony yesterday before the jury’s decision, Fred Sutherland, the company’s chief financial officer, said, “I think Aramark will respond, given the case and the (compensatory) award.”
Sutherland told the jury the compensatory judgment was “very significant” and a punitive award would harm Aramark’s reputation.
Lanzaro had testified that he drank at least two beers at a tailgate party and then six to eight beers before halftime the day of the accident. He said he was drunk and slurring his speech when an Aramark vendor sold him six beers at halftime.
Blood tests taken an hour after the crash showed his blood-alcohol level at 0.266 percent, more than 2 1/2 times the then-legal limit of 0.10 percent. The state has since tightened the legal limit to 0.08 percent.