Jury: Bar not at fault for Duluth patron's hypothermia death
The Copasetic Lounge did not illegally sell alcohol to 22-year-old Scott Miner and was not responsible for him freezing to death after he meandered outside the bar in an disoriented state on a 17-below night in January 2009.
It took a seven-member St. Louis County jury only 90 minutes to reach that conclusion Thursday after listening to three days of testimony.
Defense attorney Steve Reyelts was reached at the Copasetic Lounge, where he and Charles Flaig, one of the owners of the bar, had been waiting for the verdict.
"I want to say that the Copasetic Lounge is very sad that this happened to a person, who was a patron and a friend," Reyelts said. "We're gratified that the jury found that the Copasetic did nothing illegal with respect to the death of Scott Miner."
Miner's mother, Kim; his sister, Patricia; and brother, Luke, filed the Dramshop Act civil lawsuit in June against J&J Miller Inc., doing business as Copasetic Lounge. In his closing argument, Paul Schweiger, the plaintiffs' attorney, asked jurors for $150,000 for each of his clients for the loss of the relationship with their son and brother.
"My reaction to the verdict is that it shows how difficult it is to convince a jury to enforce the Dramshop law, which is really a balancing of profitability for the bar and responsibility to society," Schweiger said. "And by that, I mean the bars don't want to turn regular customers away, but on the other hand they have a responsibility, when there is clear evidence that somebody has gone beyond the point of impairment, to stop it."
Under the law, Judge Sally Tarnowski instructed jurors to follow, it is illegal to sell an alcoholic beverage to any person who is at the time "obviously intoxicated." "Obviously intoxicated" is defined as "intoxication that is, or should be, reasonably evident to another person using usual powers of observation."
The seven-member jury included a registered nurse, a retiree and five people with bachelor's or vocational degrees.
Three medical experts who testified all agreed that Miner's blood-alcohol concentration was about three times the legal limit to drive that night. There was no evidence presented that Miner had consumed alcohol anywhere else but at the Copasetic.
A pull tab operator and three customers in the bar that night were subpoenaed to testify by the defense. All four testified that they saw no sign that Miner was intoxicated. One customer said Miner was playing a touch screen video game involving quick reactions about 1 a.m. and that he did well considering it was the first time he played the game.
Miner left the bar at
2 a.m. and was found dead in a nearby parking lot just before 9 a.m. A medical examiner estimated his time of death at 4 a.m.
There was expert testimony that Miner was a chronic drinker, and such drinkers can be impaired by alcohol but are able to mask their intoxication from others.
"I think it illustrates that we can have scientific evidence that establishes something with objectivity, but the subjectivity of [determining] intoxication is difficult," Schweiger said after the verdict.
There were nine questions on the special verdict form. Since jurors found that the bar did not illegally sell alcohol to Miner, they didn't have to answer questions asking whether the bar contributed to the intoxication of Miner and if it caused his death.
However, jurors were required to answer six questions regarding the amount of money that would fairly and adequately compensate each of the three plaintiffs for past and future financial losses they sustained as a result of Scott Miner's death. All six questions were answered with zeros.
Scott Miner was described throughout the trial as a gregarious, friendly guy, who was popular with other customers at the Copasetic. However, the health issues he faced throughout his life, including stunted growth and the need of a kidney transplant, made life difficult and led to problems with alcohol and depression.
None of the jurors could be reached for comment.