Date of Verdict: March 18.
Court and Case No.: C.P. Bucks No. 2008-11128.
Judge: Gary B. Gilman.
Type of Action: Dram shop; premises liability.
Plaintiffs Counsel: Joseph J. Ashton III and Carin A. O’Donnell, Stark & Stark, Yardley, Pa.
Defense Counsel: R. Anthony Michetti, Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Doylestown, Pa.; John R. Evans, Bolan Jahnsen Reardon, Havertown, Pa.; John E. Salmon, Salmon, Ricchezza, Singer & Turchi, Philadelphia; Alton G. Grube, Office of the Attorney General, Philadelphia; William H. Catto, Litchfield Cavo, Philadelphia.
Plaintiffs Experts:Dr. G. John DiGregorio, alcohol toxicology, Philadelphia; Jasen Walker, vocational rehabilitation, Valley Forge, Pa.; Kristin Kucsma, economics, Livingston, N.J.; Dr. Leonard Bruno, neurosurgery, Huntingdon Valley, Pa.
Defense Experts: N/A.
Comment: A Bucks County jury has returned a $1.4 million verdict to a woman claiming she was overserved at the bar where she worked and then allowed to drive away before getting in a collision that caused her serious injuries.
After a one-week trial, the jury deliberated for three-and-a-half hours before returning $1.4 million in total damages. The jury awarded $262,000 for past medical expenses, $130,000 for past lost earnings and $600,000 for future lost earnings capability, $210,000 for loss of future household services and $225,000 for pain and suffering.
Early in the afternoon of March 8, 2008, plaintiff Marie Castelli, 47, a bartender at a Knights of Columbus establishment in Levittown, Pa., attended an employees’ meeting at her place of work.
Castelli alleged that following the meeting, she was invited to stay to have a few drinks at the bar. Castelli claimed that after drinking two bloody marys, she began feeling the effects of the alcohol in those drinks. By about 3:30 p.m., a co-worker subsequently stated, Castelli had become visibly intoxicated, which prompted the co-worker (who was leaving the premises at the time) to ask a patron (who was also drinking at the bar) to make sure that Castelli got home. However, Castelli was reportedly served another two or three drinks after the co-worker left.
Castelli claimed that at around 5 p.m., the bartender cut her off. The bartender ended his shift and the next bartender started his, but the previous bartender allegedly did not tell his replacement not to serve Castelli.
The new bartender allegedly continued to serve Castelli alcohol for the next hour, and the drinks she was served included shots of liquor. At 6 p.m., Castelli exited the Knights of Columbus establishment and got in her vehicle and drove away. At the time, the road conditions reportedly were unfavorable because of heavy rain. Within 10 minutes of leaving the Knights of Columbus hall, Castelli later claimed, she came upon a man who was standing in the roadway next to a parked vehicle, whose lights were activated. The man was waving his arms. The man apparently was attempting to alert oncoming motorists of a nearby felled tree that was obstructing the roadway.
Seeing the man, Castelli swerved her vehicle to the left, whereupon she exited the roadway and struck a standing tree head-on. Castelli was treated for quadriparesis, among other injuries, following the accident.
Two hours after the accident, Castelli’s blood-alcohol level was recorded at 0.198.
Castelli sued the Knights of Columbus pursuant to a dram-shop claim. Castelli’s suit also named as defendants PECO Energy and PennDOT, pursuant to an allegation that the roadway was not properly illuminated at the time of her accident, Robert and Andrea Weldon, the owners of the property where the downed tree had stood, on a theory that the downed tree had been poorly maintained, and a company that apparently had previously serviced the tree, Rick’s Expert Tree Service. Castelli subsequently voluntarily dismissed all of the defendants save for the Knights of Columbus, and a high-low agreement of $700,000-$125,000 was entered into.
According to Castelli’s toxicology expert, Pennsylvania law does not require liquor licensees to administer a breath test to patrons, but it does require them to observe and be attentive to visible signs of intoxication of a patron. The Knights of Columbus failed in this regard, opined the expert. The toxicologist estimated that it was between 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. that Castelli would have begun showing visible signs of intoxication — e.g., being more animated, slurring her speech, stumbling — all of which were consistent with employees’ testimonies, according to her counsel.
The defense denied any liability and maintained that Castelli, as an adult, was responsible for her own actions. It was stressed that Castelli herself was a bartender.
Following the crash, Castelli was transported by ambulance to a hospital, where she was admitted and treated for the next 11 days. She was treated for bruising to her cervical spine, which required surgical removal of her C4, C5, C6 and C7 discs. A second surgery was performed, in which screws and plates were implanted in her neck.
Castelli reportedly initially demonstrated signs of quadriplegia, but was later diagnosed with quadriparesis. She claimed she suffered deficits in all of her limbs, more so on her right (dominant) side. Following her hospitalization, Castelli was transferred to inpatient care at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, where she treated for two months. She then underwent another couple of months of outpatient care. During that time, Castelli allegedly had to relearn how to walk; she initially started in a wheelchair. It was also claimed that she could not fully lift her arms above her head for two years, forcing her to have to relearn how to bathe and feed herself.
At the time of trial, Castelli walked with a spastic gait, as her right foot dragged when she walked. She requires a cane but does not use one. Castelli’s retained neurosurgery expert opined that because of the severe trauma Castelli sustained during the March 2008 accident, Castelli will most likely suffer a neurological relapse in the next 10 to 15 years, in which she could sustain more paralysis throughout her body. Currently, Castelli cannot grasp objects with her hands and is unable to make a fist or point, so she is forced to form an inward cupping motion with her hand in order to perform tasks such as picking up a piece of paper. She lacks full strength and dexterity in her limbs, according to the expert. No future medical treatment was suggested.
At the time of trial, Castelli worked 10-hour weeks as a receptionist at a car dealership. Castelli’s vocational-rehabilitation expert credited her for continuing to work, but opined that, given her functional deficits and anticipated degeneration, she would not be able to continue working to a typical retirement age. Castelli’s suit sought to recover between $590,543 and $759,526 in damages for past and future lost earnings. Her suit further sought unspecified amounts of non-economic damages, for past and future pain and suffering.
The defense, which did not retain a medical expert in conjunction with the litigation, cited Castelli’s pre-existing condition of carpal tunnel in arguing that her ongoing complaints could be attributed to that condition.
— This report first appeared in VerdictSearch Pennsylvania, a publication of ALM •