Pennsylvania Record

Friday, February 28, 2020

Court affirms ruling that clears golf course of liability in fatal DUI crash

By Jim Boyle | Jun 12, 2014

Delaware county common pleas court judge patricia h. jenkins

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court upheld a ruling by the Northampton County

Court of Common Pleas that held that a golf course was not liable for two deaths caused by an intoxicated guest while he drove home from the club.

The ruling denies a motion by the estates of the two victims that appealed the October 2013 judgment by claiming court errors and misconduct by the golf course's attorneys. The panel reviewed each claim and ruled that none of them held merit.

The facts established by the lower court's trial say that on June 9, 2009, James Black participated in his weekly golf outing at Riverview Country Club in Easton, Pa. According to the Superior Court's memo written by Judge Patricia Jenkins, Black consumed multiple beers prior to starting his round of golf, another beer while playing, then poured a few glasses from pitchers purchased by other guests at the club's bar.

Shortly after leaving the premises, Black's car veered across the center line of the road and struck an oncoming motorcycle, killing Patrick Petti and Barbara Warren. Black eventually negotiated a guilty plea and is currently serving a five to 10-year sentence for two counts of homicide by vehicle, one DUI count and one count for reckless driving.

The victims' families filed a wrongful death suit against Black and Riverview, where the defense accident restructionist testified that distracted driving caused the accident. Black said during his criminal trial that he was reaching for his phone to read a text, and police evidence showed that he had received a text at the time of the crash. The defense toxicologist also said that it is possible that Black showed no signs of intoxication at the golf course, according to Jenkins.

The civil jury ruled Black's negligence caused the deaths of Petti and Warren, but that Riverview did not sell or give him alcohol while he was visibly intoxicated, an action that would have violated the Dram Shop Act. The act makes it unlawful for an establishment licensed to serve alcohol to furnish liquor to anybody who is visibly intoxicated.

The court ruled that the Dram Shop Act did not apply because there was no proof that Black was visibly intoxicated when he drank at the club's bar. The plaintiffs made the connection that because Black had a .166 blood alcohol content in his blood at the time of the accident, then he must have drank at Riverview. The court ruled that though it may be true, there was still no evidence that employees served Black while he was obviously drunk.

The plaintiffs also appealed based on the lower court's ruling that their expert witness could not comment during the trial on matters beyond his official report. The toxicologist was precluded from saying that Black was intoxicated by alcohol consumed at Riverview, a finding that was not in his pre-trial report.

The appeal also claimed that the defense attorney's conduct during the trial unfairly prejudiced the jury. One cited example was the attorney's closing arguments, which included a statement that the plaintiffs did not call any witnesses from the bar because none of them could testify that they saw Black was intoxicated. The inference was not entered as evidence, so the judge ordered the jury to disregard the statement, a remedy that the Superior Court accepted.

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