Miami jury orders bar that served drunk driver to pay $96 million in damages

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A Miami-Dade jury has delivered one of the most significant verdicts ever in a car crash, 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 drunk driver in 2015.

The jury found that one of the defendants, Georgetown Partnership, owner of The Corner, a Miami bar, was negligent in serving alcohol to the intoxicated driver. The company was ordered to pay nearly $59 million for the son’s medical treatment and $37 million in damages to the parents, Noel Crisales and Elisa Diaz.

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 on Wednesday’s verdict. He said he didn’t know the names of the bistro’s insurers because they were never involved in the litigation. The insurers were not named in the lawsuit.

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

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

The civil verdict against the owner of the beverage establishment is the second after Florida’s notorious $1 billion verdict against two trucking companies in 2021, according to media reports. The jury in that case found that a company driver was on his cell phone, exceeded the permitted driving hours and did not have a business license. After the crash caused a pile-up, another truck driver failed to slow down and rammed the cars, killing an 18-year-old.

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

In the Criales’ wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit, the jury did not award punitive damages, which could have been capped under Florida law. Even without a cap on damages, it’s unlikely the family will collect the full $96 million or the verdict will stand on appeal. Florida’s “dram shop” law, called restrictive for plaintiffs, allows damages, but only when an establishment willfully or illegally sells alcohol to a minor or someone “habitually addicted” to alcohol . Earlier this year, a Florida appeals court overturned a $29 million dram shop’s verdict against a Tallahassee bar.

And it’s unclear what assets the Miami Bar’s parent company, Georgetown Partnership, may hold that could be used to pay the judgment. The company is listed as a limited liability company, which means that its directors cannot be held personally liable for most damages.

And, of course, a nightclub or restaurant’s liability insurance policy is usually limited to a maximum of $2 million, the attorneys said.

Georgetown Partnership executives could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. Lawyers for the Criales family could not be reached either by the Journal des Assurances. But attorney Aaron Davis told Law.com, a legal news website, that putting the father on the witness stand impressed jurors.

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

The family has reached confidential agreements 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 hosted the fateful Christmas party in 2015.

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