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Pub and driver share the blame for accident

On Dec. 8, 1990, Damon Batton spent 3{ hours drinking beer in a Brandon bar before he plowed his 1984 Honda into Theodore Leone at 50 miles per hour.

The Florida Highway Patrol officer who investigated did not charge Batton with any driving violation, nor test him for alcohol, even though the Brandon resident was 18 at the time and too young to be drinking legally.

Monday, a Hillsborough jury took a dimmer view of Batton's behavior that night and also faulted the owner of the Brandon Pub for willfully selling alcohol to minors. Batton and pub owner David Gajadharsingh were each 50 percent responsible for the accident, the jury decided, and damages totaled $589,000.

Leone, who was pushing his motorcycle north along U.S. 301, suffered massive injuries in the accident, his Palm Harbor attorney, Thomas Carey, said Tuesday. Leone underwent 17 operations and eventually may lose his left leg, Carey said.

Neither Batton nor Gajadharsingh could be reached for comment. But at trial, Batton denied that he was drunk that night, Carey said.

Florida law usually does not allow bars and lounges to be sued when a drunk patron harms someone. But one exception is when a bar knowingly serves a minor. Two former waitresses from the pub testified that the Brandon Pub routinely served minors without asking for identification, Carey said. One waitress remembered a night when bar employees hustled minors into a beer cooler to hide them from authorities.

_ STEPHEN NOHLGREN

Carter joins health debate

The national debate on health care reform represents a real opportunity for mental health issues to get the attention they deserve, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter said Tuesday.

"We know what to do, we know what works, we know what we need," said Carter, who spoke at the Florida Mental Health Institute's Seventh Annual Research and Training Center for Children's Mental Health Conference.

Carter worked closely with a task force that provided recommendations on mental health care reform to First Lady Hillary Clinton last year.

But revisions in the Clinton plan have now jeopardized the open-ended, comprehensive insurance coverage for the estimated 30-million people who suffer from some kind of mental illness.

"The challenge we now face is finding a way to provide affordable and comprehensive mental health care for everybody," Carter said. "I think we should have mental health benefits on par with physical benefits."

During a brief question-and-answer session at the end of Carter's speech, she was asked what areas she would compromise in return for mental health coverage.

"I'm not willing to give up anything, yet," she responded to a burst of applause. "But I guess at some point, we will have to."

_ LISA FREDERICK

Project wants in on schools

The Edison Project, an ambitious venture to create a nationwide chain of profit-making private schools, is interested in setting up shop in a Hillsborough County public school. And School Superintendent Walter Sickles says he's willing to give the idea a try.

Sickles said Tuesday that representatives from the Edison Project contacted him recently to propose taking over the administration of a local school, perhaps next school year. Sickles has not yet studied the proposal enough to take it before the School Board. But he said Tuesday that at first blush he is receptive and wants to know more.

The Edison Project is led by former Yale University President Benno C. Schmidt, who left the Ivy League school to join the Edison Project and to attempt to create schools that provide superior education for no more than public schools cost. The project boasts some impressive corporate backing, including Whittle Communications and Time Warner Inc.

Many educators, including the major teacher unions, have reacted to the Edison Project effort with skepticism and criticism.

_STEPHEN HEGARTY

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