It was a Saturday afternoon, in broad daylight. The driver, Theron Webster, had a previous conviction for drunken driving and later admitted that he had been drinking all day. His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.
Mrs. Clymer and her husband, New York Times journalist Adam Clymer, raced up the East Coast to the hospital in Vermont. On the way, she had a premonition that their daughter had died.
Jane emily was still alive when the Clymers arrived at the intensive care unit. “We saw Jane emily, really a sort of Jane emily,” Adam Clymer wrote in an account published in the Times in 1986. “Machines were keeping her breathing and her head was swollen like a melon.”
Jane emily died the next day at 18.
Mrs. Clymer, 75, died Feb. 10 at her home in Washington, her husband said. In the years after their daughter’s death, the Clymers waged a court battle that brought legal recognition to the losses suffered by parents such as themselves — the mothers and fathers deprived of their adult children in cases of wrongful death.
First came criminal proceedings in which, after months of legal wrangling, the vehicle’s driver was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The Clymers had never thought of taking civil action, Adam Clymer wrote in the Times, until an estate lawyer asked them if there would be a lawsuit.
The couple had established a scholarship at the University of Vermont in Jane emily’s name and decided to sue, planning to use any money they collected to build the endowment. They reached a settlement with the driver’s insurance company and filed suit against two bars where he had been drinking before the wreck.
The Clymers viewed their lawsuit as an effort to draw attention to the rampant problem of drunken driving. In the years since Jane emily’s death, organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving have helped change the culture of complacence that had long surrounded the offense. But at the time, MADD was still in its infancy, and drunken driving carried nothing resembling the social stigma it does today.
Vermont, like most states, did not allow parents to seek damages for the loss of companionship of an adult child. A superior court initially ruled that, because Jane emily was 18 when she died, the Clymers’ claim could not go forward.
But in 1991, the Vermont Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling.
“Children have an intrinsic value to their parents, regardless of who was supporting whom at the time of death,” the court held in its unanimous ruling. “Whether the decedent child is an adult or a minor, society recognizes the destruction of the parents’ investment in affection, guidance, security and love.”
The court also ruled that the Clymers could collect punitive damages from the bars, another departure from previous court holdings.