Rhode Island attorney Mark Mandell, the author of Case Framing, member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, and past president of the AAJ, recently obtained a $21 million verdict on behalf of a young mother who was permanently paralyzed from the chest down. Mark described this case as “one of the most challenging cases I’ve tried in forty-two years.” The following summary from Mark describes how he used his Case Framing method to find justice for his client.
On April 24, 2010, a car crash occurred as a result of Twin River Casino’s service of alcohol to an eighteen-year-old customer, Alexander Arango. The crash occurred five to ten minutes after Mr. Arango left Twin River. The crash site was less than five miles from the casino.
The Rhode Island state troopers who responded to the crash scene observed that Mr. Arango was exhibiting the following signs of intoxication: his speech was slurred, his eyes were severely bloodshot, a moderate odor of alcohol emanated from his breath, and he was combative with the police. One of Mr. Arango’s passengers, then eighteen-year-old Alissa Moulton, suffered catastrophic injuries and is permanently paralyzed from her chest down.
Ms. Moulton brought claims against Twin River Casino. She alleged that the casino violated Rhode Island’s Liquor Liability Act and was negligent under Rhode Island common law. Specifically, Ms. Moulton alleged that the casino had served alcohol to the eighteen-year-old Mr. Arango, and that he was visibly intoxicated at the time of service. She also alleged that the casino was otherwise negligent at common law by failing to monitor Mr. Arango to see if he showed signs of intoxication, by serving him to the point of intoxication, and by allowing him to leave the casino while he was visibly intoxicated and get in his car and drive.
Experts & Witnesses
The plaintiffs presented expert and fact witnesses at trial. Dr. Charles McKay, Jr., current president of the American College of Medical Toxicology, provided scientific proof that Mr. Arango had consumed alcohol during the time that he was inside Twin River Casino. Dr. McKay’s conclusion was based on the results of two blood-alcohol-level tests performed on Mr. Arango’s blood after the crash. Dr. McKay testified that Mr. Arango consumed alcohol during the time he was inside Twin River Casino and that the alcohol consumed at that time was a substantial factor in causing the crash.
Tara Paster, an expert in the field of safe alcohol service, testified that Twin River’s alcohol service system failed on April 24, 2010. This system failure was the result of Twin River’s improper and inadequate alcohol service policies and procedures, Twin River’s improper and inadequate staff training, Twin River’s improper and inadequate supervision of its staff, and Twin River’s improper and inadequate investigation and discipline of its employees concerning alcohol related incidents.
Expert witnesses testified as to the permanency and severity of Ms. Moulton’s injuries, as well as to the estimated costs of her lifelong medical care and treatment. The jury also heard testimony from fact witnesses including Ms. Moulton, Mr. Arango, the beverage server who provided the alcohol to Mr. Arango, one of the state troopers who responded to the crash site, and many others.
The I-Just-Can’t-Get-Over Issues
The Case Framing method relies on identifying and focusing a case on the issues that a jury “just can’t get over.” By working to keep the jury focused on the I-just-can’t-get-over issues that were good for our case, and removing or inoculating against the I-just-can’t-get-over issues that were bad for our case, we were able to deconstruct the defense’s narrative during trial.
The good I-just-can’t-get-over issues for the plaintiffs included:
- The science: based on a scientific comparison between the results of the two blood-alcohol-level tests, Dr. McKay was able to determine that Mr. Arango had to have consumed alcohol during the time he was inside the casino.
- The proximity in time and distance between Twin River and the crash site: The crash occurred five to ten minutes after Mr. Arango left Twin River, and the crash site was less than five miles away from the casino.
- The signs and symptoms of intoxication at the crash site: RI state troopers observed Mr. Arango to have many classic signs of intoxication at the crash site. It made sense that Mr. Arango would have been exhibiting those same signs at, and while he was leaving, Twin River.
- The testimony of Mr. Arango’s companion, Jose Diaz: Mr. Diaz was with Mr. Arango almost the entire time they were at Twin River. Mr. Diaz testified that he observed Mr. Arango drinking out of a plastic cup, that Mr. Arango told Mr. Diaz he had “scored” a drink, and that Mr. Arango began exhibiting signs of intoxication shortly after he consumed the drink.
- Twin River’s inadequate staff training: plaintiffs’ expert Tara Paster relied upon a chart that showed the jury the inconsistent answers that six different Twin River beverage servers gave at deposition to questions about critically important alcohol service policies and procedures. This chart proved the inadequacy of Twin River’s training program. Importantly, the beverage server who served Mr. Arango was oftentimes an outlier on this chart, providing answers that showed a complete lack of understanding as to how to serve alcohol safely and responsibly.
The bad I-just-can’t-get-over-issues that the plaintiffs had to address and overcome included:
- Mr. Arango’s statement to the police the day following the crash in which he denied drinking alcohol at Twin River, but admitted to drinking alcohol prior to arriving at Twin River.
- Mr. Diaz’s statement to the police hours after the crash in which he stated that Mr. Arango did not drink at Twin River.
- The testimony of Christina Sinapi, the fourth person in the group. Ms. Sinapi testified that she was within eyesight of Mr. Arango the entire time they were at the casino and that he did not drink there.
- There was no receipt or other direct proof of purchase of the drinks.
- At the time of the crash, Mr. Arango and Ms. Moulton were in a dating relationship. By the time of trial, they were still in a romantic relationship, lived together, and had two children.
Along with the use of motions in limine and reasonably effective depositions that removed the defense’s ability to call its two expert witnesses, there was one more key step we took that helped deal with the I-just-can’t-get-over issues that were bad for our case. We created a Medicare trust, with Ms. Moulton’s grandparents (we also obtained Court permission to add Ms. Moulton’s grandparents as coplaintiffs) and Comerica Bank as the trustees, before the trial. This created a way for us to prove to the jury that Mr. Arango would never directly benefit financially from any verdict the jury chose to award.
The Case Frame
Our overall case frame, revealed for the first time during closing argument, was “Everyone needs to do their job.” If Twin River management had done its job and implemented appropriate policies, trained and supervised its staff, and taken appropriate corrective action following alcohol related incidents, Mr. Arango would not have been served alcohol. If the beverage server had done her job and asked Mr. Arango for identification and refused him service when he did not have any ID, Mr. Arango would not have become intoxicated and impaired in his ability to operate a motor vehicle. If Twin River security had done its job and intervened when Mr. Arango left Twin River while visibly intoxicated, the crash would not have occurred.
Other supplemental case frames that we developed throughout the trial and that were mentioned in closing argument included that the casino had “turned a blind eye” to the danger it created by its inadequate policies and training, and that a “system failure” occurred due to the inadequate policies and training, and that those inadequacies made this crash “inevitable.”
After a five-week trial, the jury found that Twin River had violated Rhode Island’s Liquor Liability Act by serving alcohol to a minor and that the casino was negligent under the common law. The jury awarded Ms. Moulton over $13,338,000. Prejudgment interest increased the total award to over $21 million.