On November 20, 2015, the Supreme Court of Alabama released an opinion affirming a $7 Million wrongful death verdict obtained for a Davenport, Lavette & Cleckler client, part of over $15 Million in total jury verdicts affirmed in four consolidated Bessemer, Alabama cases. The verdicts included $13.5 Million in punitive damages, the largest punitive damage verdicts that the Court has affirmed in over 20 years. It is also the highest wrongful death verdict affirmed since 1993.
Davenport, Lavette & Cleckler is proud of our partner, Pat Lavette. Pat was the lead trial lawyer and also was the principal author of the appellate briefs. Finally, he did an outstanding job at Oral Argument before the Supreme Court.
The cases were “Dram Shop” cases arising out of illegal liquor sales to minors. Alabama’s Dram Shop laws impose strict liability on alcohol vendors for illegal sales to minors resulting in injury or harm. In this case, the “14th Street BP” convenience store in Bessemer, Alabama, sold Mogen David “Mad Dog” 20/20 wine to an under-aged driver on several occasions over the course of the evening. The driver became extremely intoxicated and ultimately crashed her vehicle into a tree. One of her passengers was killed, and the others were injured. Four separate claims were brought against the convenience store, and all of the claims were consolidated for trial.
Plaintiffs included Davenport, Lavette & Cleckler client, Sharon Robertson, whose 13‑year old son, Drew, was killed in the crash; 15‑year-old Michael Waldrop, who suffered significant injury; 18‑year old Jennifer Vickery who suffered significant injury; and finally, Tammy Hardin, the mother of the driver.
The jury returned the following verdicts:
Sharon $7 Million (wrongful death verdict)
Michael $3.75 Million ($750,000 compensatory, $3 Million punitive)
Jennifer $3.9 Million ($900,000 compensatory, $3 Million punitive)
Hardin $ 500,000 (punitive)
The fateful evening began when 13-year old Drew and 15‑year old Michael met, by chance, the two older girls, Jennifer Vickery and Brittany Caffee. Caffee announced that she knew a store that would sell them alcohol and the group went to the convenience store on multiple occasions that night to purchase wine. Later, an intoxicated Caffee drove her vehicle into a tree at an extremely high rate of speed. Drew was killed at the scene. The other occupants were all injured severely.
At trial, there was evidence that the convenience store regularly sold alcohol to under-aged teens. There was also evidence that the convenience store’s owner encouraged employees to lie to investigators about illegal alcohol sales in order to cover up liability.
After the verdicts were returned, the Trial Court held a second hearing to determine whether the jury’s verdicts would be imposed against the convenience store’s owner and against a sister corporation under a “piercing the corporate veil” theory. The Court determined that the businesses and their owner operated as “alter egos” of the other and imposed liability on all defendants.
An appeal was taken to the Alabama Supreme Court which summarily affirmed the Trial Court, without opinion.