N.J. to judge the legitimacy of witnesses recruited via ads in Aramark alcohol case

N.J. to judge the legitimacy of witnesses recruited via ads in Aramark alcohol case

Advertising is a powerful tool. Sending an effective message can go a long way toward making a sale, and in the right hands the message sent could manipulate how people respond to specific issues, too.

Attorney David Mazie knows this, and that is why he has taken his message—the case of Antonia Verni—to the people of New Jersey in a series of ads that have run in newspapers for the past couple of months. Mazie’s ads seek out witnesses who have seen alcohol being sold to visibly intoxicated fans at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Why would he place such ads in a newspaper?

He represents the family of Antonia Verni, a 9-year-old who, at the age of 2, was paralyzed in a drunken-driving accident involving Daniel [3] Lanzaro, who had attended a Giants football game the day of the accident and drank at least six beers while at the stadium. After the game he continued to drink at bars in the area. Then he got into his car and drove away, badly injuring both Antonia and her mother shortly thereafter.

The family sued Harry M. Stevens Inc., the beer vendor at the stadium and a subsidiary of contract foodservice company Aramark Corp. [4], and Aramark Services Management of New Jersey Inc., which supplied the workers for the stadium’s concessions stands. They also sued Giants Stadium, the National Football League, the New York Giants and the two bars Lanzaro went to after the game, but settled with those defendants for about $1 million. The big prize now is Aramark.

In 2005 a jury found in the family’s favor and awarded them what is believed to be the largest dramshop verdict ever—$135 million. The Aramark subsidiaries were held liable for 50 percent of the damages and Lanzaro the other half. But in August 2006, a state appellate court judge overturned the verdict, ruling that Mazie did not sufficiently prove a culture of drunkenness existed at the stadium. To do that, witnesses would have had to testify that they had seen Aramark’s concessions workers serving visibly intoxicated fans. A retrial is set to begin July 23.

Under New Jersey law, taverns, restaurants, hotels and sports venues can be held liable for selling alcohol to visibly drunk customers who later cause injuries. Hence the ads.

Mazie said many potential witnesses already have come forward. But Aramark attorney David Field argues the ads are a blatant attempt to sidestep last year’s ruling. He says Aramark’s alcohol service policy is not on trial, only whether Lanzaro was visibly drunk when he was served. He also says the witnesses found through the ads are irrelevant, and he could request the judge to bar their testimony.

Few people would dispute that what happened to Antonia Verni is a tragedy or that Lanzaro should be held accountable for his actions. But now the court must decide what weight to give witnesses found through newspaper advertisements—and what message that may send.