Jury awards couple $1.3 million in lawsuit against East Lyme sports bar

A New London jury awarded a $1.3 million verdict Monday to a Niantic couple seriously injured in a 2009 car crash caused by a waitress for the Lyme Tavern Cafe, who testified she had been drinking during and after her shift at the Niantic sports bar.

Kathleen and Frederick Stern of Niantic had sued the bar's permittee, Franklin McEwen and its owner/operators, Steven Carpenteri, Rebecca Cahill and Capers Ltd. Cahill later was removed from the lawsuit, according to court records.

At the trial, which began last month in New London Superior Court and concluded Monday, the jury found that Carpenteri, McEwen and the corporation were 40 percent responsible for the crash and the former employee, Sheri L. Hunter, was 60 percent responsible, according to the plaintiff's attorney, Bill Bloss of the Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder law firm.

Essex attorney Jan C. Trendwoski, who represented the Lyme Tavern defendants, could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to the court record, Hunter was driving northbound on Interstate 95 in East Lyme at about 9:15 p.m. on Nov. 29, 2009, when she rear-ended a car driven by Mr. Stern with Mrs. Stern in the passenger seat. The Stern's car left the highway and rolled into an embankment. Mrs. Stern, trapped in the vehicle for some time, suffered the more serious injuries, including a fractured pelvis and fractured ribs, and has not been able to return to her job as assistant manager of a bookstore, according to attorney Bloss. Mr. Stern suffered a broken nose and knee injury and has returned to his job as a counselor for the Department of Correction, Bloss said. Medical expenses totaled about $300,000.

Bloss said Hunter had a blood alcohol level of .21, which is nearly three times legal limit for driving. According to court records, she pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree assault with a motor vehicle in 2012 and served five months in prison followed by three years of probation.

At the trial, Hunter, now 39 and living out state, had testified that she had a series of drinks during and immediately after her eight-hour shift, according to Bloss. She said she drank three or four shots of Rumplemintz, a peppermint liquor, and two large cups of vodka, one while on duty and another at the end of her shift.

"It was the practice to give every employee a free drink when they got off duty," Bloss said.

Hunter, who lived in Ledyard, left the Route 156 bar and took the Rocky Neck Connector to get to the highway, driving about a mile before she drove into the back of the Stern's vehicle, Bloss said. The Sterns were heading home after having dinner with their son in Old Saybrook.

"Mr. Stern testified that he was driving at 60 miles an hour and all of the sudden somebody crashed into the back of his car and pushed it down an embankment," Bloss said. "The car rolled over three times, and Mrs. Stern was trapped for quite a while."

Under state law, if a bar serves an intoxicated person that causes a crash, the bar is responsible, Bloss said. Also, when the person drinking is an employee, the bar management is responsible for supervising them, he said.

"Usually overservice of alcohol claims involve customers, but there is an area where it can also include employees," Bloss said.

The defendants had offered testimony from Lyme Tavern employees who said Hunter had not been drinking, or not drinking much, but a toxicologist offered compelling evidence about her level of intoxication, Bloss said. He said the plaintiffs are confident of a "meaningful recovery" of the 40 percent award from the bar owner and permittee but is considering the other 60 percent, deemed Hunter's responsiblity, "uncollectable."

According to court records, the Stern's insurer, Geico, had previously sued Hunter on their behalf, winning a judgment in 2012 of $209,394.

Bloss said he tried the case with his new colleague, Christopher Mattei, a former federal prosecutor who joined Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder after prosecuting former Gov. John G. Rowland for the U.S. Attorney's office.

Judge Timothy D. Bates presided at the trial.

k.florin@theday.com

Twitter: @KFLORIN 

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