Miami Jury Orders Bar That Served Drunken Driver to Pay $96M in Damages

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A Miami-Dade jury has returned one of the largest verdicts ever in an automobile accident, awarding $95 million in damages plus attorneys’ fees to a South Florida family whose daughter was killed and whose son was catastrophically injured by a drunken driver in 2015.

The jury found that one of the defendants, Georgetown Partnership, owner of The Corner, a bar in Miami, was negligent in serving alcohol to the inebriated driver. The business was ordered to pay almost $59 million for the medical care of the son and $37 million in damages to the parents, Noel Criales and Elisa Diaz.

The lead attorney for the defendant bistro business, David Cabellero, of Cole, Scott and Kissane, one of Florida’s largest liability and insurance defense firms, declined to comment Wednesday on the verdict. He said he didn’t know the name of the bistro’s insurance carriers because they were never involved in the litigation. The insurers were not named in the suit.

The driver of the car, 22-year-old Franklin Chavez, in 2017 was sentenced to seven years in prison after he was found guilty of driving under the influence and causing the accident. After hours of partying, Chavez drove more than 70 mph on the wrong side of Interstate 95, with his lights off, before slamming head-on into the Criales’ vehicle, according to news reports at the time.

The family was taking the daughter to the airport, on her way to medical school.

The civil verdict against the drinking establishment owner is second only to the famous, $1 billion Florida verdict against two trucking companies in 2021, according to news reports. The jury in that case found that the driver for one company was on his cell phone, was over the allowed number of driving hours, and did not have a commercial license. After the accident caused a pileup, another truck driver failed to slow down and slammed into the cars, killing an 18-year-old.

The jury granted $100 million to the parents, along with $900 million in punitive damages.

In the Criales’ wrongful death and personal injury suit, the jury did not award punitive damages, which could have been capped under Florida law. Even without caps on damages, it’s unlikely that the family will collect the full $96 million or if the verdict will hold up on appeal. Florida’s “dram shop” statute, called restrictive for plaintiffs, allows damages, but only when an establishment willfully or unlawfully sells booze to a minor or to someone who is “habitually addicted” to alcohol. A Florida appeals court earlier this year reversed a $29 million dram shop verdict against a bar in Tallahassee.

And it’s unclear what assets the Miami bar’s parent corporation, Georgetown Partnership, may hold that could be used to pay the judgment. The firm is listed as a limited liability corporation, meaning its principals can’t personally be held liable for most of the damages.

And, of course, a nightclub or restaurant’s liquor liability insurance policy is usually limited to no more than $2 million, attorneys have said.

The principals of Georgetown Partnership could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. The lawyers for the Criales family also could not be reached by the Insurance Journal. But attorney Aaron Davis told Law.com, a legal news website, that putting the father on the witness stand made an impression on jurors.

Davis, in his closing arguments, also noted that the defendant owner of the bar did not bother to show up in court for the trial.

The family reached confidential settlements with other defendants in the case, according to the news site. The plaintiffs had also named Chavez, the driver, and Crossfit Downtown Miami, a gym where Chavez worked, which held the fateful Christmas party in 2015.

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