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Parents of St. Petersburg High student killed in boat crash sue liquor store

ST. PETERSBURG — Six weeks after their daughter was killed in a boating accident, the parents of Paige Davison filed a lawsuit accusing a local liquor store of being partially responsible.

Davison, a 17-year-old St. Petersburg High School senior, died Oct. 2 when the boat she was riding in slammed into a jetty near Albert Whitted Airport.

Alcohol may have been a factor in the accident, authorities said. No criminal charges have been filed, but an investigation is ongoing.

In a wrongful death lawsuit filed last month, Jill and Jeff Davison say a St. Petersburg convenience store, the Quick Thru, 4025 Fourth St. N, sold alcohol to David L. West and Trey Sorenson, the two teens who were operating the boat that night.

Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges the shop "is known throughout the community as willing to sell beer and other alcoholic beverages to minors."

It's not the first time the shop, owned by Rajesh Patel, has been sued by a family of a teen killed in an accident in which alcohol was cited as a factor, records show.

For a year, Patel fought a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Andrew Smith, who died Feb. 16, 2008, when he collided with another car on a Pinellas County road. But because of a lack of evidence, Patel was dropped from the suit, his lawyer said.

Patel also has been the subject of formal complaints to the state accusing him of illegal sales to minors. The complaints have led to multiple undercover investigations of his store, state records show. But in all but one investigation, Patel or his employees refused to sell booze to minors sent in undercover.

Patel's attorney says the shop owner doesn't sell to people underage.

"He has a problem with that because underage people are constantly trying to buy beer," said Walter Smith, who represented Patel in the 2008 lawsuit and is now handling the Davison suit. "He's very careful about it."

• • •

Andrew Smith was 19 when he died.

According to a Florida Highway Patrol crash report, the college student lost control of his black 2005 Acura about 1:45 a.m. on Feather Sound Drive as he approached a curve in the road near Pelican Landing Boulevard. He collided with another car and was thrown through his front windshield.

His blood-alcohol level was 0.152, the report stated, nearly twice the level at which state law presumes impairment.

Hours before the crash, Smith went to a party where he and other teens were drinking, according to the lawsuit his parents, John and Sandra Smith, filed in June 2008. And at some point, the suit states, Smith bought alcohol from the Quick Thru. The store did not require Smith to provide identification that proved he was old enough to buy alcohol, the lawsuit states.

"The death of Andrew Smith was directly and proximately caused by this illegal sale of alcohol by the defendants," the suit states.

Walter Smith, Patel's attorney, said his client was dropped from the lawsuit in June after the plaintiffs couldn't come up with any proof of their claims about Patel. The suit also named the teen who threw the party and his mother as defendants.

"There was absolutely no merit to that," he said. "There was absolutely no credible evidence."

The attorney representing Andrew Smith's parents did not return calls for comment.

• ••

After Smith's death, state authorities conducted an investigation at the Quick Thru.

In April 2008, the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco sent an investigative aide into the store to buy alcohol. A female clerk asked the male aide, who was 18, for his driver's license, and refused to sell him a beer.

Two months later, the state agency received an anonymous complaint about the store selling to minors. Again, an investigative aide who was sent into the shop was denied service.

In July, agents again sent in an investigative aide after they received another complaint. The aide was denied a purchase. Investigators checked in on the store several more times and didn't observe any violations, according to state documents.

The only action against the Quick Thru came in September 2007. That month, state records show, an employee at the shop, Kajalben Patel, sold a 16-ounce Bud Light for $1.50 to a 16-year-old girl working as an investigative aide.

Authorities arrested Kajalben Patel on a charge of selling alcohol to an underage person, a misdemeanor. Adjudication was withheld, and she paid a fine.

• • •

The Davison lawsuit also names Sorenson, West and West's parents as defendants.

The Davisons claim in their suit that West and Sorenson got beer from the Quick Thru after purchasing a bottle of rum from another unknown liquor store. The lawsuit states that Patel himself was working that night and didn't inquire about the teens' age.

In fact, the lawsuit alleges, employees at the shop know when they are selling to minors and will charge them extra.

Patel and his attorney deny the accusations.

"Rumors are one thing, and admissible evidence is another," said Smith, Patel's attorney. "He adamantly denies having sold beers to the teens. And he certainly denies having a reputation for selling beers to minors."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Parents of St. Petersburg High student killed in boat crash sue liquor store 12/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 28, 2009 9:03pm]
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