$815,000 – Wrongful Death

Wrongful Death – – $815,000 Recovered for Family of Victim Killed by Drunk Driver Claims Against Drunk Driver and Bar That Served Drunk Alcohol

Type of Action: Negligence, Drunk Driver Liability, Bar and Liquor Liability

Injuries Alleged: Fatality of James Warren, age 38, a resident of Wake County. At the time of his death, James was the father to three sons, Darrin, Daniel and Nickolas, and was happily married to his wife, Susan Warren. James worked as material handler at a local manufacturing plant.

Name of Case: Estate of James D. Warren, Jr. v. Highbeams II, Inc.

Court and County with Case #: Wake County, File # 06-CVS-17336

Settlement/Trial: Case settled at a mediated settlement conference after written discovery was conducted.

Name of Judge or Mediator: Anne R. Slifkin, Becton, Slifkin & Bell, P.A. (Raleigh), Mediator

Special Damages: EMS and Hospital Charges $15,105.86; Funeral Bills $2,812.35; Burial Bills $5,633.18; Present Value of Net Lost Income to Age 67 $692,478; and, Present Value of Loss of Services to Warren Family $484,000.

Verdict or Settlement: Settlement

Amount: $815,000.00 ($65,000 from three insurers on behalf of the drunk driver which was their policy limits; and, $750,000 from insurer for the bar that overserved the drunk driver alcohol.)

Date of Verdict or Settlement: Dismissal filed January 31, 2007.

If not settled, Highest Demand (defense verdict) or Highest Offer (plaintiff’s verdict): Not applicable.

Most Helpful Experts (Name, Title, Location): J. Finley Lee, economist, Chapel Hill, NC; Andrew Mason, toxicologist, Boone, NC; J Mac Video Productions, Raleigh, NC; and, The Visual Advantage, medical illustrations and courtroom exhibits, Knightdale, NC.

Insurance Carriers: Several layers of insurance were involved which insured the drunk driver and the bar that served him alcohol.

Lead Attorney for Plaintiff: Philip A. Mullins, IV of Thomas, Ferguson & Mullins (Durham), 919-682-5648, fax 919-688-7251

Description of Case, evidence presented, and arguments made: The family hired Thomas, Ferguson & Mullins, LLP within days of the fatal motor vehicle collision. Attorney Philip Mullins was able to contact witnesses, including the drunk driver and his drinking buddies, to obtain critical evidence establishing his obvious intoxication on the evening of the wreck, before the bar served him several more alcohol drinks and then let him heave their establishment with car keys in hand. The drunk driver’s insurers tendered their policy limits after adequate evidence was submitted to them from the plaintiff’s attorneys.

As with far too many bar liability cases, liability was a hotly contested in this case. The bar took the position that they had no knowledge of the patron’s intoxication when they were serving him alcoholic drinks, before he left their bar and drove drunk. On the evening of March 17, 2006, UNC was playing in the Men’s NCAA basketball tournament. James Warren drove his vehicle with a friend to a local bar, Highbeams Bar & Grill. The bar was located along Hwy 64 in Knightdale. Unbeknownst to James, another man named Samuel Morris was also at the bar. Morris had been drinking at the bar for quite some time and had drunk approximately 14 drinks containing alcohol at that bar. At shortly before midnight, James and his friend left the bar. Because James had been drinking, he chose to not drive his vehicle, but instead set out to walk less than ¼ mile to the hotel where his wife worked. After safely crossing the highway and going several yards off the paved roadway, James sat down and eventually fell asleep or passed out on the embankment near the road.

A passing motorist called 9-1-1 and Wake County Sheriff’s deputy Walt Martin stopped to speak with James and lend some assistance in getting him to the hotel. Samuel Morris then left the bar, after having drunk so much that his blood alcohol level was approximately 0.28, and set out to drive his motor vehicle home. Morris crashed into the rear of Deputy Martin’s stopped white suburban which was outside the travel lanes of the roadway with its rear flashing lights, blue flashing lights, and headlights operating. Morris hit the stopped law enforcement vehicle so hard it launched the suburban off the road and up the embankment, running over and killing James.

Pre-suit settlement negotiations were not fruitful. In the days and weeks after this tragic crash, the bar allowed others to be served alcohol to the point of intoxication resulting in two other serious motor vehicle crashes, one of which resulted in another fatality. When it became apparent that the bar had no intention of altering its behavior or honoring its obligations under the law as a privilege licensee to serve alcoholic beverages, the Warren family authorized filing of this lawsuit. After some preliminary written discovery was conducted, the parties agreed to mediate the case. Plaintiff’s counsel submitted an extensive settlement package to the defense including complete medical history of the decedent, affidavits establishing the special damages, videotaped of James’ family, co-workers, and friends concerning the family’s loss, and additional documentation to address all the concerns of the defense relating to liability. Throughout the course of this litigation and at the mediation, the bar denied all liability. The bar asserted no negligence, no duty to stop or otherwise take any precautionary measures with an intoxicated patron who was going to operate a motor vehicle, and no liability due to the drunk patron’s intervening negligence. The bar also asserted contributory negligence on the part of James Warren. The bar asserted that James was passed out on the side of the road at the ditch area with a blood alcohol level of approximately 0.15. Thus, he was a proximate cause of his own injuries which led to his own death. (If a jury believed that, which is contributory negligence, it would likely bar their liability to the Estate. Plaintiff contested this allegation.)

Late on the evening of the mediated settlement conference, the parties reached a settlement. The Estate successfully recovered the policy limits of the drunk driver’s insurance and all underinsured motorist coverage prior to instituting this action against the bar. The recovery from the drunk driver and the UIM carrier(s) is not part of the $750,000 recovered by the Estate from the bar. After the lawsuit was filed, but before mediation, the bar closed down. The corporation had no assets against which to collect any judgment. After the lawsuit was filed, it was determined that the bar’s owners had no assets to collect any judgment from. Since there were very limited liability insurance coverage limits in this situation, and the sheriff deputy’s claims were pending, the Estate authorized settlement. (Deputy Walt Martin is represented by separate counsel has a lawsuit pending in Wake County against the same drunk driver and the bar, Wake County 06-CVS-11441.) The background information provided to the defense concerning the character of James Warren as a son, husband and father, and the evidence of his family’s loss as a result of this avoidable fatality were the most compelling factors in obtaining this settlement. His military service with various medals and honors, along with his exemplary work history were helpful. Having co-workers who agreed to step forward to provide their affidavits and videotaped statements concerning James’ character, high quality of work, and loyalty to family was invaluable in focusing the defense and their liability insurance carrier to depth and degree of this family’s loss.

Amount Actually Recovered for Client: 100% recovery, ie., $815,000 (Eight Hundred Fifteen Thousand Dollars).