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Despite a plea joined by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the New Jersey Supreme Court has declined to consider reinstatement of a record $105 million dram shop verdict against a Giants Stadium beer vendor. In a Jan. 31 order with no commentary, the court denied a petition for certification by lawyers for Antonia Verni, now 9, who was paralyzed in a crash with a drunken fan after a Giants-Saints game in 1999. Two years ago, a Bergen County Superior Court jury found the stadium vending company, Harry M. Stevens Inc., and its parent Aramark Corp., liable for $30 million in compensatory damages and $75 million in punitive damages. The verdict was cited around the country as a warning to the sports industry, its vendors and its insurers of the potential cost of letting fans drink too much at games and tailgate parties. But an appeals court vacated the award and ordered a retrial in August on grounds that dramatic testimony about the culture of drunkenness at the stadium was impermissible in a dram shop case and had the capacity to enflame the jury. The Supreme Court’s cert denial in Verni v. Harry M. Stevens of New Jersey sets the stage for a trial along the lines mandated by the Appellate Division: concentration on whether the fan was served when he was visibly intoxicated, not whether a culture of drunkenness existed. In an amicus brief, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) had asked the court to consider the case as a vehicle to expand dram shop law and lift restrictions on testimony about drinking establishments that MADD deems unfair to the victims of drunken drivers. “Under these restrictions servers may present evidence of its policy and training, but the victim can’t counter with evidence of violation of that policy or inadequate training,” John Keefe Jr. of Keefe Bartels wrote in MADD’s amicus brief. One of the defense lawyers, Stephen Cozen of Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, said Feb. 6, “It appears clear that the Supreme Court understood the issues and understood that unless and until there was a retrial there was no issue that met their standard for review at this time.” The next step will be a conference on the retrial with Bergen County’s Civil Presiding Judge Daniel Mecca. It is not known if the original trial judge, Richard Donohue, will hear the case again. Cozen said the only issue at the retrial will be whether the vendors served the drunken fan, Daniel Lanzaro, when he was visibly intoxicated. Cozen notes that the Appellate Division ruling also allows the jury to allocate fault to other defendants: The Gallery, a bar Lanzaro visited after the game; Michael Holder, a friend who bought liquor for Lanzaro; the New York Giants and the National Football League. The cases against them were dismissed after either summary judgment or settlements and the jury was not allowed to apportion any of the liability to them. Cozen said Mecca or whoever presides at the trial also will have to decide whether the vendors’ parent company can be excused from the case. Aramark Corp., the parent company of the vendors, Aramark Services Management of New Jersey and Harry M. Stevens Inc., argues that the plaintiff lacks evidence that the parent company has some responsibility in the service of liquor. “In terms of damages it makes no difference, but nobody should be burdened with the costs and expense of defending themselves against a frivolous lawsuit,” Cozen said. Verni’s lawyer, David Mazie of Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman, said the defense is overstating the impact of the evidentiary rulings on his ability to prevail again. First, he said, the ruling that adds other potential sources of liability to the verdict sheet is a Pyrrhic victory for the defense. The evidence shows that Lanzaro didn’t drink at The Gallery, Mazie said. He said the only way the defense can point fingers at the football defendants is to suggest there was a culture of intoxication at games and the appellate ruling bars them from doing that. Second, Mazie said, the appeals court ruling permits him to introduce evidence of observations over the years that people were served at the stadium while they were intoxicated and testimony by employees that they would serve people who were slightly intoxicated. Such evidence is relevant to the issue of whether the concessionaires were likely to serve Lanzaro when he was visibly intoxicated, the appeals court said. “There are certain things they say we need more specificity on and we certainly plan on adding significant proofs that weren’t available before,” Mazie said. This article originally appeared in the New Jersey Law Journal , a publication of ALM.

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