Mississippi Lawsuit Against Bar Over Drunk Driving Death Leads to $15M Judgment

By Robin Fitzgerald | October 7, 2011

A lawsuit and the state’s dram shop law have led to a $15 million judgment in Mississippi against Slippery Nick’s Saloon and Grill. However those who brought the suit do not expect to collect since the bar had no liability insurance.

The suit was brought on behalf of three people — two newlyweds and a friend — who were killed in a head-on collision four years ago after being hit by a car driven by a woman after she left the Gulfport bar. A waitress at the bar had served the woman drinks even though she was visibly drunk and allowed her to drive away.

Newlyweds Brad Downs, 21, his wife, Samantha, 19, and their friend, Chris Dafoe, 24, all of Gulfport, died Oct. 6, 2007. Brad Downs was driving them to see a movie in a Ford Mustang when a Mitsubishi Endeavor driven by Deborah Stewart of Gulfport veered into their lane on Mississippi Highway 53.

Stewart, 38, also died, and her passenger was ejected and critically injured. A toxicology test later showed Stewart’s blood-alcohol content level was 0.119. State law considers 0.08 percent or higher too drunk to drive.

Heirs of the three young adults don’t believe they will receive any money from the judgment. The lounge did not have liability insurance. “The lawsuit was never about the money,” said Bill Downs, Brad Downs’ father. “It was about accountability. I wanted the owner of the bar to stand up and take responsibility.

“I want the public to know that the state’s dram shop law holds lounge and tavern owners accountable when they serve alcohol to patrons who are visibly drunk and then allow them to get behind the wheel of a car and hurt or kill someone.”

The message is more important than the money, he said. Downs and his wife, Julie, now lead the Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter in Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties.

“Money won’t bring them back,” he said, “but we want to do everything we can to save the lives of others.”

Attorney Mark Davis said Slippery Nick’s violated the dram shop law and its owner, Nicholas Dorich, admitted it by signing an agreement on the bar’s behalf. The judgment was against the lounge, not the owner.

The bar has closed and its owner can no longer operate a lounge in Mississippi.

The dram shop law makes bar owners legally liable if a patron, who was served alcohol at their business while visibly intoxicated, negligently causes an accident, Davis said.

The law’s odd name comes from a centuries-old reference to a small drink of alcohol. Taverns that sold drinks by the dram were known as a dram shop, a seller of alcohol.

Davis was prepared to prove the case at trial with the law and the testimony of a lounge patron and former bar manager who saw waitresses continue to serve Stewart alcohol while she was visibly intoxicated. “The bar did nothing to prevent her from driving,” Davis said.

An accident report showed Stewart’s speedometer was stuck on 80 mph. Her auto insurance had lapsed.

Most dram shop cases don’t result in a lawsuit, Davis said, because it’s usually unclear where a drunk driver got their alcohol, or whether they were served alcohol while obviously intoxicated.

“The courts only see the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “It is common for drunk drivers to cause serious accidents. It is also common for the same drunk drivers to have been served alcohol by a local tavern, many while visibly intoxicated.”

In this case, he said, four people died, and the Downs family and Gulfport police asked questions. At the time of the crash, Stewart was wearing a bracelet given to Slippery Nick’s patrons.

“Unfortunately, in Mississippi, there is no requirement that a business that sells alcohol maintain liability insurance,” Davis said.

“However, the court did all it could by issuing a permanent junction against Nicholas Dorich that prevents him from ever opening a tavern again in Mississippi.”

The young adults’ heirs sued for $20 million in damages and later agreed with Dorich for a judgment. Circuit Judge John Garguilo signed an order in June for $15 million, awarding $10 million to Brad Downs’ family and $2.5 million each to the families of Samantha Downs and Chris Dafoe.

Dorich could not be reached for comment.

Brad and Samantha Downs were high school sweethearts. They had been married 3-1/2 months. He was a technician at a car dealership. She wanted to become a nurse.

Dafoe had just been hired to start a new job with a waste-management company.

The night they were killed, Bill Downs, who works for the Gulfport School District, was driving home when he reached a road block. A wreck had occurred. He tried to call the young adults to warn them of the road closure but couldn’t reach them. He drove to Cinemark but didn’t see their car.

“I knew in my gut it was them,” he said. He drove back to the scene but wasn’t allowed to get close enough to see. “I knew at least two people were dead. I drove to the hospital and waited. I was there when the coroner came out of the room and he told me.”

Stewart and the newlyweds were pronounced dead. Dafoe died a couple of hours later.

Bill and Julie Downs have since channeled their grief into positive action by becoming involved with MADD.

“I am the voice of victim,” he said, “and I will be heard.”

He speaks about their loss once a month at victim-impact meetings that drunken drivers are court-ordered to attend. His wife manages two online support groups on Facebook.

Samantha Downs’ mother, Michelle Kleiser, is not as pleased with the judgment as the Downses. Kleiser said a part of herself died when her daughter died. “She was only 19,” Kleiser said. “Yes, she had hopes and dreams. Her dream came true because she married Brad. But she wanted to be a mama.”

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