A federal judge has given the go-ahead to an $11 million lawsuit said to be the first in Virginia in which damages are being sought from an establishment that served alcohol to a person later held responsible in a fatal auto accident.
The establishment in question is the noncommissioned officers' club at Fort Myer in Arlington, where a serviceman allegedly drank before his car collided with another on Lee Highway three years ago, killing a 36-year-old engineer.
An attorney for the federal government argued yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria that the state has no laws imposing civil liability on a person or establishment that serves a person later involved in an accident.
But Judge Richard L. Williams ruled, without elaboration, that there is "an identifiable cause of action" in the case and allowed it to continue. No trial date has been set.
The case stems from an accident shortly after midnight Dec. 20, 1981, in which a vehicle driven by Army Specialist Patrick M. Patterson hit broadside a car driven by Michael T. McDonnell.
Patterson was convicted in Arlington and received a one-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter in the death of McDonnell, an engineer and former Peace Corps volunteer.
Maura L. Corrigan, who was riding with McDonnell, was critically injured.
According to court records, Patterson, then 19, drank at least one rum-and-coke at Fort Myer's Arlington Station Hall early in the evening on the night of the accident.
Patterson, who was knocked unconscious in the accident, says that he cannot remember the night's events, including whether he continued to drink at the base or elsewhere.
His blood alcohol count at the time of arrest was .26, or twice the level considered legally intoxicated, according to court records.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Corrigan and McDonnell's eight brothers and sisters, alleges that Patterson was served by base employes at Fort Myer who "had a duty to refrain from serving and selling intoxicating beverages to a person who they knew or should have known or had reason to believe was intoxicated."
Under Virginia law, it is a misdemeanor to sell alcoholic beverages to a minor or an intoxicated person. Most states also have statutes relating directly to civil damages. Maryland and Virginia do not.
"The critical issue is whether this court will sit as a legislative body," the government's attorney, Paula Potoczak told Williams yesterday.
Richard Alkire, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said, "Our contention is simple: the Army was negligent. We're simply asking this court to recognize that a tavern keeper sees and knows the risk of serving a person who is a minor or is intoxicated."