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Suit says Clearwater Beach bar responsible for severed leg

CLEARWATER — Before Joshua West reached speeds of 90 mph, before he veered up onto a sidewalk, and before he slammed into Andrew Hall, employees of a local beach bar served him alcohol despite knowing he had a drinking problem, says a lawsuit filed Monday in Pinellas County.

West, now 25, was drinking at Shephard's Beach Resort, a popular Clearwater Beach bar, before the April 20, 2009, accident, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Three hours after the crash, his blood alcohol level was measured at 0.188 percent, more than twice the level at which a driver is presumed impaired in Florida.

"Our investigation has revealed that Joshua West was served an inordinate amount of alcohol at Shephard's on the night of the incident and that they had actual knowledge he was driving because their employees escorted him to his car," said Hall's attorney, Tom Carey.

West fled after he struck Hall, who was standing outside his Safety Harbor apartment. Pinellas deputies found West a short distance away. Hall suffered multiple injuries, including a severed left leg and shattered pelvis.

The lawsuit, which includes West as a defendant, says the popular beach bar should be held responsible because employees there served West despite having knowledge that he was "habitually addicted" to alcohol.

Carey said West was "ejected" from the bar before the accident "because he was grossly intoxicated."

Calls to Shephard's were not returned Monday. Attorney Daniel Shapiro, who represents the business in other matters, had a trial and could not be reached for comment, said his assistant.

Under Florida's "dram shop" law, an establishment can be held liable only if it "willfully" serves a minor or a customer "habitually addicted" to alcohol. (The term dram shop originates from a small measurement, or dram, of alcoholic beverages.)

Some states, such as Massachusetts and New Hampshire, have a lower threshold for liability with laws saying establishments can be held responsible for serving patrons who show obvious signs of impairment.

"Florida is one of the weakest in terms of any kind of responsibility (for those serving alcohol)," said Todd Rosenbaum, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Florida.

The Florida Retail Federation, a state trade organization that includes the Florida Retail Beverage Council, opposes dram shop law reform and touts education to mitigate overconsumption.

John Rogers, the federation's senior vice president and general counsel, said an intoxication threshold often isn't quantifiable.

"How do you prove somebody was clearly intoxicated?" he said.

State law doesn't mandate server training programs, but many insurance companies suggest or require it.

Pepin Distributing Co., the primary distributor for Anheuser-Busch products in the Tampa Bay area, offers bartenders and servers intervention training.

"We teach them how to look at the customer, do a quick evaluation on where they are," said Bill Gieseking, a certified trainer for Pepin. "How are their inhibitions? How do they look? Are they beginning to slur in any way? Are they stumbling when they get up?"

Hall, now 20, was hospitalized for seven months after the accident. He has cerebral palsy and struggled throughout his childhood to walk unassisted. He now uses a wheelchair but hopes to be fitted with a prosthesis in order to walk again someday.

Increased accountability for bars and restaurants could help prevent other accidents, said Hall. "That's where the focus should be," he said.

In February, West pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, causing serious bodily injury and leaving the scene of an accident involving injury.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

Suit says Clearwater Beach bar responsible for severed leg 04/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 9:54am]
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