A Trial Story: In Honor of Christy
Christy King was 16 years old, and like millions of American teenagers, she struggled with some issues. She was born, raised, and poorly educated on an Native American Reservation in her early elementary years. Although she stayed competitive through her junior high years, by 9th grade the holes in her early education were beginning to take their toll. In 1999 she enrolled in Bay View High School as a 9th grader and immediately was overwhelmed by the high school curriculum. As she began to fall further and further behind in school, Christy, like so many other high school students, began to drink socially, mainly on the weekends.
By the fall semester of 2001 Christy had not advanced in Bay View and was hopelessly mired in an educational system that, quite frankly, had no idea how to help her. She was a habitual truant because she simply could not handle the school experience. Day after day her mother would drive her to school and day after day Christy would not go to class.
Then, on an innocuous Tuesday night in December of 2001, Christy got a call from two male friends asking if they could stop by for a social visit. When they arrived, the four teens pooled their money and the boys and a female friend of Christy’s went to a local liquor store where an employee, as he had done on a few prior occasions, sold the teens (all of whom were under the legal drinking age in Wisconsin) about 30 beers.
The four participants, Christy (16), her female friend (15) and the two boys (18 and 19) returned to Christy’s because Christy’s parents were both at work. Over the next two and one half hours all the beer was consumed. At that point the 19 year old, the only one with a car, indicated he needed to go home because he had to get up to work in the morning. The other male and the two girls wanted to continue “hanging out,” so the decision was made that the 19 year old male would drive the 18 year old male to his home so he could pick up his mother’s car and he and the young girls could continue the evenings revelry.
The two young girls got in the back seat of the car. All four were intoxicated. Along the way something drew the driver’s attention to back seat. He turned to yell at one of the girls and in doing so, dropped his lit cigarette between the console and the front seat. Now driving while intoxicated and searching for the dropped cigarette, the 19 year old lost control of his car, jumped the curb, ricocheted off a pole and slammed into a tree at a speed calculated by a police reconstruction expert to be not less than 50 miles per hour.
The car was torn in half, the debris was spread over sixty percent of a city block, and tragically, Christy King was killed instantly.
Christy’s mother brought a wrongful death action against the intoxicated driver and chose Ric Domnitz as her attorney. After collecting the $100,000 policy limits of the driver’s liability policy, Ric went to trial against the excess carrier for the driver. In spite of the defense arguments about Christy’s drinking, the culpability of the liquor store employee who sold the minors the beer, and the questions raised about the closeness of the relationship between Christy and her Mom based largely upon Christy’s habitual truancy, Ric prevailed at trial.
Ric’s position at trial was that the drunk driver of the vehicle has the ultimate responsibility for the accident. Certainly the conduct of the liquor store employee was loathsome, but the truth is that underage drinkers will always find a source for beer if they really want to drink. Its been going on for longer than we all care to remind ourselves and it would be hypocritical, Ric argued, to hold the supplier to be the main culprit here because he was the conduit for obtaining the beer on this particular occasion.
As to Christy’s habitual truancy and its reflection on her relationship with her Mom (which is the measure of damages: the loss of the relationship) Ric pointed out that a parent’s love for her child is not measured by how good or bad a student the child is, nor even whether or not the child is responsible about their obligations in school. This young girl was truant, Domnitz argued, because she could not handle the work and the school she was in had no capacity to deal with kids so lost. The evidence showed that despite her admittedly habitual truancy, Christy’s obscenely low grade point was in the top 25% of her class!!
Arguing to the jury that the lesson of life is that the love of a mother for her daughter is untarnished by such facts as these, and presenting nothing more than Christy’s mom and very short testimony from one friend, Domnitz moved the jury to award $350,000 for the loss of society and companionship suffered by Christy’s mother. The jury found Christy 12% at fault for riding with an obviously intoxicated driver, the liquor store employee 13% at fault for supplying the beer, and the driver 75% at fault.
Motions after verdict were waived by both sides and the verdict was paid less than three weeks after the trial ended.