Shades of Hot Coffee in Tailgating Case
The recent widely publicized settlement in a wrongful death case brought against the Kraft Group by the family of Debra Davis has generated almost uniformly scathing criticism on public comment sites. Indeed, at this rate, the case could become the new darling of tort reformers, similar to the infamous “McDonalds hot coffee” case. Most people were highly critical of the idea owners of Gillette Stadium should be responsible for the death of a young woman who was killed in a single-car accident while riding with her intoxicated friend after the girls had spent the day partying in one of the facility’s parking lots.
Debra Davis and two friends, all underage, were tailgating in the parking lot of Gillette on the day of the New England Country Music Festival in July 2008. None of the girls had tickets to the event–they were simply there to join the party–which apparently, they did. Several hours later, with Davis’s friend, 19-year-old Alexa Latteo at the wheel, their car crashed on Route 1, killing Davis and injuring the third girl, Nina Houlihan.
If the only legal question were whether Davis and her friend made bad–and even illegal–choices, the case would be over before it began. Obviously, they did, from entering the parking lot to party, to bringing alcohol they were too young to drink legally, to consuming apparently large quantities of that alcohol, and then attempting to drive home. But legally, the fact that the girls were in the wrong doesn’t relieve the Gillette ownership of all responsibility.
According to court documents and published reports, the Gillette management had been ordered by the Town of Foxboro to be more careful about underage drinking on its property after a near-riot at the same event the previous year, involving large numbers of underage drinkers. Gillette had instituted a “no ticket, no entry” policy to discourage non-concert goers from showing up just to party. Yet, the policy was allegedly poorly enforced, with inadequate efforts being made to patrol the parking lots and curb underage drinking.
The key to the management’s responsibility is that the Kraft Group is running a business at Gillette–a big business, as anyone who’s paid stadium parking fees can attest. This isn’t a situation where, unknown to a homeowner, the girls parked in the woods behind someone’s house with a six-pack of beer. Gillette charges handsomely for the right to enter its parking lots, and with that charge comes responsibility–specifically the responsibility to monitor the activity going on there. There was nothing unexpected or unforeseeable about what happened to Debra Davis–the only surprise is that something similar hadn’t happened before. Like the McDonald’s case, where many facts were lost in the barrage of tort reform publicity, many significant facts contained in court papers were omitted from news reports.
Another aspect is that the case involved minors, who are entitled to special protection under the laws related to alcohol. We all know that “kids do dumb things” and make poor choices, especially where alcohol is involved. As a society, our laws reflect our concern with excessive alcohol use, and the need to protect young people from themselves, as well as protect the public from the young people who may make poor choices.
The case is obviously less sympathetic because of the conduct of the victim and her friends. Perhaps public opinion would be very different if the allegedly intoxicated driver had killed a young family out for a weekend drive. But the identity of the victim should not remove the focus from the principles that require business owners to take steps to see that dangerous conduct is not taking place on their property.