TAMPA — One night last October, Max Holloway lost control of his Dodge Charger, veered off the road and crashed into a house.
The 26-year-old former standout football player for Jefferson High School died from his injuries. The crash was widely reported, in large part due to Holloway's football success and the notoriety of his father, who spent eight seasons in the NFL.
Now, a lawsuit filed by Holloway's parents, Brian Holloway and Bette McKenzie, is placing blame on a Lutz bar and grill their son frequented. He was there so often, according to the lawsuit, that employees at Panini's knew he was addicted to alcohol but served him anyway.
The suit hinges on a little-known state law that says someone who knowingly serves a person "habitually addicted" to alcohol can be liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from that person's drunkenness.
Legal experts like Brian Baggot, a Tampa defense attorney who specializes in so-called "dram shop law" cases, called this a very difficult case to make.
"It's a significant uphill battle," Baggot said, "absent a very unusual set of circumstances."
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Dram shop laws originated in the United States during the 1800s as an effort to deal with public drunkenness associated with town saloons.
The laws, which get their name from a time when a dram was a serving of alcohol, took on a new form near the end of the 20th century, especially during the Ronald Reagan administration, as concerns about drunken driving grew, said Tim Kaye, a professor at Stetson University's College of Law.
Generally, the laws allow for the injured victim of a drunken driving accident to take legal action against a bar or other business that served the alcohol to an intoxicated person. The laws garnered support from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"The idea was to reduce the number of road accidents because those selling alcohol would be attentive to the state of their patrons and wouldn't be selling to someone who was clearly intoxicated," Kaye said.
Of the 42 states that have some type of dram shop law, Florida's is among the most limited. It says a party may only be held responsible for injury or damage caused by a drunken person in two cases — if the seller knowingly provides alcohol to a minor or to "a person habitually addicted to the use of any or all alcoholic beverages."
The limited scope of the law is due in part to lobbying efforts by the tourism and hospitality industry, Kaye said.
"So that means a place like Disney, who has no idea who anybody is, is off the hook, and that most larger bars are off the hook, too," Kaye said. "It really means in practice that only small bars with regular clientele they know are going to be on the hook."
Legislators were also concerned about so-called social liability lawsuits, in which party hosts could be targeted for the actions of their drunken guests, said Baggot, the Tampa attorney. His practice as a partner at Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell focuses on the defense of alcohol sellers in the hospitality industry.
Generally, the burden of proof for negligence suits requires a plaintiff to prove someone knew or should have known that actions would have caused damage, injury or death. But in Florida's dram shop law, Baggot noted, the phrase "should have known" is not included.
"It's very difficult to prove that knowledge element," he said.
The only successful case Baggot can recall in his career involved a public figure whose battle with alcoholism was common knowledge and who had been previously kicked out of the bar for being drunk.
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The three-page complaint filed against Panini's contains few details about evidence, but an attorney for the Holloway family says they are optimistic they can prevail.
"This was similar to somebody at a bar like Cheers, where everybody knew him and knew his name," said the attorney, Keith Pierro, with Gold & Gold in Boca Raton. "We're confident that Panini's was well aware" Holloway had a problem with alcohol, he said.
After Jefferson High, Holloway went on to play at Boston College and spent a season with the Tampa Bay Storm. He later returned to Jefferson to teach at-risk youth and was working to get into commercial real estate development, Pierro said.
Pierro said Holloway regularly visited Panini's with teammates after flag football games. He was well known, Pierro said, by the bartenders and other staff at the bar and grill inside Northgate Square shopping center at Dale Mabry Highway and Van Dyke Road.
On the night of the crash, Holloway arrived at Panini's about 9:30 p.m. and stayed past 2 a.m., Pierro said. He declined to comment on what or how much he was drinking that night.
About 2:20 a.m., Holloway set out for his house in Heritage Harbor, about 4 miles away.
According to a news release from the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, Holloway was driving west on Lutz Lake Fern Road around 2:30 a.m. Oct. 27 when he failed to follow a curve and veered off the road. The car struck a utility pole, careered through a ditch, hit several trees and slammed into a house on Sandy Shores Drive, deputies said. The car came to rest on its roof in the back yard of the home. No one else was injured.
The Sheriff's Office did not mention alcohol as a factor at the time of the crash. Agency spokeswoman Cristal Nuñez said the investigation report is not available because the case was still active. She had no details about why it is still open.
Pierro said he was waiting for toxicology results on Holloway's blood alcohol content but already has "evidence from witnesses." He declined to elaborate.
Holloway's parents are seeking a jury trial and damages in excess of $15,000 to compensate them for their son's medical and funeral expenses and their mental pain and suffering.
"The family is devastated by the tragic loss of their son and brother," Pierro said.
A manager at the Lutz Panini's referred a reporter to the franchise's corporate office in Ohio. Calls to the company were not returned.
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.