The U.S. government agreed yesterday to pay $250,000 to the family of man killed in a 1981 automobile accident on Lee Highway for which an Army enlisted man who had been drinking at a club on a military post was held responsible.
In a related action in the same suit, U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams took under advisement claims for damages from a Cleveland woman who was left in an irreversible coma as a result of the same accident on Dec. 20, 1981.
In settling with the eight brothers and sisters of Michael T. McDonnell, 36, an engineer and former Peace Corps volunteer who was killed in the crash, the government did not concede liability.
The case, in which $11 million in damages had been sought, is believed to be the first in Virginia in which an attempt has been made to recover damages from an establishment that served alcohol to a person later held responsible in a fatal auto accident.
On the night of the accident, Army Specialist Patrick M. Patterson, then 19, drank at the Army-run disco called Arlington Station Hall even though he was already intoxicated, according to court records.
Shortly after midnight Patterson's car struck McDonnell's car broadside. A passenger in McDonnell's car, Maura L. Corrigan of Cleveland, was injured and has since remained comatose.
Patterson's blood alcohol level at the time of his arrest was .26, court records show, or twice the amount considered legally intoxicated. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Arlington and sentenced to a year in jail, serving 90 days, according to court documents.
The suit filed in federal court in Alexandria by McDonnell's brothers and sisters and Corrigan's father, John, contends that the U.S. government is ultimately responsible for the accident because it ran the club where Patterson was drinking.
In addition, the families charged that the Army was negligent in not following its own regulations for identifying and treating servicemen with drinking problems. According to court papers, Patterson, who had had a car accident earlier in 1981 in Monterey, Calif., after which his blood alcohol level was found to be .24, was not enrolled in an Army alcohol rehabilitation program.
Under Virginia law it is a misdemeanor to sell liquor to persons under 21 or those who are intoxicated. U.S. military facilities have in the past said that clubs on bases may serve anyone over 18 years of age. Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. recently ordered Navy bases to comply with local laws setting drinking ages, and the secretaries of the Army and Air Force are expected to follow suit.
Williams said that if he determines the U.S. government was liable for the injuries suffered by Corrigan, he will hold a hearing to set the amount of damages to be awarded.
James McDonnell of Columbia, Md., said he and his brothers and sisters brought the suit "because we felt there was negligence on the part of the Army or the U.S. government in making alcohol so readily available to an underage person. Hopefully, if this only helps to prevent it once we can feel our brother didn't necessarily die in vain."