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Case sets low price for young man's life

Published Aug. 2, 2003|Updated Sep. 1, 2005

Christopher Fugate was 19 years old. He had a 3.9 grade point average at a community college and was filled with promise for the future when his parents sent him to Tallahassee to finish at Florida State University.

He had been captain of his football team down in De Soto County where his father, Johnny Fugate, is sheriff.

Like many young people working their way through school, Chris took a job at the ubiquitous Hooters chain and began working as a part-time cook.

On July 24, 2002, Chris Fugate ended his work day about 2 a.m. but remained at Hooters for "shift beers," a reward given to employees at the end of a hard day's work, according to court records.

Only problem was that Chris was 19, too young to drink. But drink he did, until he and managers left the restaurant at 3:41 a.m. Everyone now knows the time because Tallahassee police obtained security logs clearly indicating the time everyone left.

Five minutes later, just a few blocks away, Chris Fugate's life came to an end in a single-car accident on W Tharpe Street. His blood alcohol level was 0.25 _ more than three times the amount at which Florida law presumes a driver is impaired.

At first the managers at Hooters told police they had closed their doors at 2 a.m. and suggested that Chris might have visited some other bar before his accident.

Then Keelyn Pickens, an assistant manager from New Port Richey who was also working her way through FSU, suggested to police they check the security logs to determine when everyone left.

Pickens also described the practice of giving free "shift beers" to workers at the end of the day. The practice was "a way to reward employees for finishing their work and being good employees," she testified recently in a deposition.

After telling police about the shift beers, she was fired, and it appeared no one would be held accountable for the events that led to Chris' death.

Enter Sidney Matthew, a lawyer filled with the kind of passion it takes to tilt at windmills. He, of course, filed suit against Hooters of Leon Inc., a separate corporation from the one that operates the restaurants by the same name in the Tampa Bay area.

Matthew began tracking down other Hooters' employees and accumulating testimony that focused on shift beers and a tendency to allow a little marijuana smoking around the restaurant.

He has now taken sworn statements from several others who worked at Hooters and enjoyed free beer at the end of shifts.

In June, Matthew got Leon Circuit Judge Nikki Clark to issue an order allowing him to pursue punitive damages against Hooters because of "intentional misconduct and gross negligence."

Last week the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco entered into a consent agreement with Hooters of Leon over the Fugate case. The owners say they have terminated employees who violated the law but admit no wrongdoing.

The price for Chris Fugate's life established by the state: a fine and five days without beer.

The owners agreed to pay $2,500 and accept a five-day suspension of their license. That means they will not be selling any alcohol from 2 a.m. today until Thursday, Aug. 7.

Hooters also has adopted some new policies and will now require underage employees to wear distinctively colored name badges so they can be easily identified as being under 21.

The lawsuit continues.

"It's an embarrassment," Matthew says of the fine. "It's a slap on the wrist and doesn't reflect the truth of the whole situation. They had written policies before and violated them all. It's business as usual. They haven't solved anything, just scapegoated a few low-level employees while admitting nothing."


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