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Estate of man killed by bartender in drunken driving crash settles for $1 million

A car crash involving a drunken driver brought Sandra Halverson’s career as an EMT to a screeching halt in the early 2000s. Even after years of responding to scenes of car wrecks and medical emergencies, the wreckage of a drunken driver crossing the double yellow line and slamming head first into another car on Route 6 in Columbia shook her to her core. 

As she watched her colleagues help the two mothers and two children whose car had been smashed, as an intoxicated man stumbled through the street asking what happened, she couldn’t fathom how someone could make such an irresponsible, potentially deadly decision. That night marked the end of her career as an EMT, and triggered a new, paralyzing fear: that a drunken driver would kill someone she loved. 

Years later, on a night last August, her worst fear came true. A man named Jeremy Gavitt downed at least four beers at the Malted Barley — the bar he worked at in downtown Westerly — and got behind the wheel. He swerved onto the wrong side of the road in Ledyard and drove straight into Halverson’s brother’s car.

Robert Golden II, 49, of Groton, was pronounced dead at the scene. 

“He didn’t even have time to react, he didn’t even have a chance,” said his other sister, Kimberly Quinn, sitting across from Halverson at a large conference table in a New London law office last week. 

As they spoke about their brother’s life and death in their lawyer’s office, stacks of papers and printed photos lay between them: photos of their younger brother with his beloved dogs and photos of his red car crumpled to pieces, the yellow centerline on the road covered in shattered glass. Their only brother is gone and Gavitt later died by suicide, compounding the grief that still feels debilitating to the Golden family. 

Golden's estate then sued the Malted Barley, where Gavitt worked and was drinking that night. The case was settled earlier this month for $1 million in Rhode Island Superior Court. The funds were disbursed to Golden’s family, represented by The Reardon Law Firm of New London, on Feb. 14.

Last Aug. 12, Golden, affectionately known as “RJ,” was headed home from work at Foxwoods Resort Casino, where he’d worked for 28 years after serving in the Navy, including tours overseas in Africa and Saudi Arabia. He was driving home to Groton, where he would have been greeted by his cockapoo, Mandy, whom he took on walks at Bluff Point State Park. 

Golden and his sisters were raised in Glastonbury, where Golden was the baby of the family and everyone’s “center of attention” from the day he was born, said his sisters. He was close as could be with his father, even spending hours on the phone with him after he retired to Florida, watching action and comedy films together from afar. 

He was an avid golfer with plans to retire to Florida himself and was diligently saving for it. 

“His dream was to get down to Florida and live in a golf community when he retired, make new friends, golf every day and walk his dogs,” said Quinn. 

The sisters said Golden was an involved, inspiring uncle to one niece, three nephews, two grandnieces and two grandnephews, always lifting them up, building their confidence and even mentoring them in their careers. 

“He was just such a good person, and the world was a better place with him in it,” said Quinn.

Golden, of 177 Briar Hill Road, Groton, was driving south on Route 117 in a 2014 Hyundai Elantra at the time of the crash. An autopsy found that he died of blunt injuries to his torso and lower extremities, according to police and court records.

Gavitt, of 22 Brandywine Drive, Westerly, was driving a 2016 GMC Envoy. He later told Ledyard police that he was headed to his mother’s house in Ledyard to let her dogs out when he struck Golden’s car.

He had clocked out of shift at the Malted Barley around 1 a.m. and had his “shift beer” — an alcoholic beverage given to employees after their shift, he told police. Surveillance videos from the bar showed that Gavitt drank at least four beers after his shift. He allegedly drank more alcohol in the parking lot and had taken at least one hit of marijuana, court records show.

His fellow workers left Gavitt in his car, court records show.

Employees of the Malted Barley “told the police they anticipated he was going to sleep in his car but clearly that was not what happened here,” said Attorney Kelly Reardon. “The Malted Barley didn't do their job in making sure one of their employees got home safely and without hurting other people.” 

At the time of the crash, his blood alcohol concentration was .18, well over the legal limit, according to police and court records. 

Gavitt, 32, died by suicide in September 2021, about one month after the accident. He left a young son and daughter, according to an obituary.

The lawsuit alleges that the Malted Barley “recklessly” served Gavitt liquor and “knew or should have known that Jeremy Gavitt was visibly intoxicated.” It also alleged that they failed to properly train, manage and supervise their employees. 

Attorney Michael McVinny from Boston-based MG+M law firm, representing the Malted Barley, could not be reached to comment Monday. 

Halverson said that in the days, weeks and even months after her brother’s death, she felt an almost “all consuming” anger. Quinn said she wanted to know nothing about Gavitt. But when they learned of his suicide, they said, it just made them even more sad.

“After I found out that Jeremy was remorseful it made him into a human being again, and that anger all went away, that monster part went away,” said Halverson.

Her sister said she didn’t think seeing Gavitt in court would have helped, and learning of his suicide just made it a worse situation for two families.

“I never really felt that going to court was going to give me satisfaction, or bring justice, but I was hoping that he would at least be held accountable, and when he died, then I just felt even sadder. This is just such a sad story, sad for everyone,” said Quinn. 

“It’s been an unnecessary, preventable tragedy that impacted two families,” she said. “That was just another kick in the gut to make it sadder and just compiled this sadness into an already sad story.” 

For Golden’s family, the settled suit is a step toward holding people accountable for the decisions that lead to a tragedy like the one they are grappling with. 

But the sisters say that they feel they’re at a loss for words, because nothing seems to work.

“I don't really know what to say because it’s been said before and people still don’t listen,” said Quinn, who encouraged people to make a plan if they’re going to drink: Tell their server not to serve them more than two drinks, or to make a pact with the friends or colleagues they’re out with.

“Make some sort of a plan so that you don’t put yourself in that situation, no one expects to. I’m sure Jeremy didn’t expect this to happen and if he could do it over, I’m sure he would have slept in his car or not drunk so much,” she said.

They hope that people who hear their brother’s story will encourage people to look at avoiding drunken driving as a community effort, as everyone’s responsibility.

“I think the responsibility falls on all of us. Because when you think about what happened here, there were people at the bar who were serving him beers and who knew he was consuming more than he should. They knew that he had a car, they knew that there was at least a possibility that he was gonna drive the car,” said Reardon.

 “Once somebody is impaired, it falls on us: as a society, as a bar, as coworkers, to help that person make the right decision because when they're impaired they can't necessarily make the right decision," she said. "That’s the whole problem.”

t.hartz@theday.com

 

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