Three lawsuits stemming from a deadly highway collision in 2001 were filed Thursday against Peabody’s, a popular Oceanfront nightclub where the driver responsible for the wreck had been drinking.
Enrique Lopez, a 21-year-old sailor serving aboard the carrier George Washington, was driving his Ford Mustang the wrong way on Interstate 264 on May 11, 2001, when he slammed into another vehicle that was traveling in the opposite direction.
Three women in the other car – including 19-year-old Debra Van Sickle, an expectant mother – were killed. Lopez also died.
The lawsuits seek a total of $36.05 million in damages and attempt to hold Peabody’s responsible for contributing to the accident.
Andrew M. Sacks, the Norfolk lawyer who filed the lawsuits in Virginia Beach Circuit Court, said during a news conference Thursday that Peabody’s employees threw Lopez out of the club because he was extremely drunk and had become disorderly.
The lawsuits maintain that once employees “took control” of Lopez, Sacks said, they should have turned him over to authorities.
“The crux of this is that once they observed him, they took immediate steps,” Sacks said. “But they failed to complete that duty.”
Sacks said the club took the attitude that “as long as he is not a problem to us, we don’t care what he does.”
Virginia is one of the few states without “Dram Shop” legislation, which holds bars and restaurants responsible for serving alcohol to customers who then commit crimes or cause accidents. The absence of such legislation shields many businesses in Virginia’s tourism and restaurant industries from lawsuits.
Michael L. Goodove, a Norfolk lawyer who is president of the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said at Thursday’s news conference that the lobby representing the state’s restaurants and bars has successfully fought to keep “dram shop” legislation from getting out of committees in Richmond.
He said 44 states have such laws and that Sacks’ suits address the vacuum by creating for bars an area of “special responsibility that is a long time in coming.”
The lawsuits do not allege that Peabody’s was negligent in serving Lopez, Sacks said. Instead, they argue that Peabody’s failed to protect the public from “carnage” caused by someone the club took control of and then released “into the stream of humanity.”
Lopez had a blood-alcohol level of 0.27 at the time of the accident, well above Virginia’s legal limit of 0.08, according to police. He also is named in the lawsuits as a defendant.
Richard H. Doummar, the Virginia Beach lawyer who represents the nightclub, said Thursday that although the situation was tragic, “Peabody’s did everything they could as required by the law to do the right thing.”
Peabody’s is at 21st Street and Pacific Avenue. Doummar said the nightclub already has been cleared by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
“It is just a tough situation dealing with someone who is intoxicated,” Doummar said.
Two of the lawsuits were filed on behalf of 24-year-old Earl A. Sanders IV.
Sanders’ mother, Shirley J. Vinson, 44, was killed in the accident, as was his fiancee, 30-year-old Beverley S. Carter.
A suit in Vinson’s name asks for $15.35 million. The one for Carter asks for $5.35 million.
The third suit, which also asks for $15.35 million, was filed on behalf of Henry Sanders, who was injured in the crash. Sanders now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and still suffers from his injuries, Sacks said.
Van Sickle’s survivors are represented by Virginia Beach attorney William R. “Buster” O’Brien, who said he filed a suit against Lopez last year. He did not name Peabody’s as a defendant.
Van Sickle was on the way to the hospital at the time of the accident to possibly deliver her baby