A Richland County jury on Friday afternoon socked a local bar with a $3.85 million negligence verdict in connection with the bar’s role in serving liquor to a drunk man who several hours later rammed his Jeep into a car, killing 6-year-old Emma Longstreet.
The jury, which began deliberations Thursday afternoon and broke for the night, deliberated more than eight hours in the civil case before reaching a verdict sometime before 4 p.m. Friday.
“Justice was served,” said Emma’s father, David Longstreet, who with his wife, Karen, their three children, and Kenny Sinchak, a motorist in another car, brought the lawsuit against the Loose Cockaboose Sports Bar.
The jury found the bar was serving liquor after a state-mandated closing time, and that it had served an obviously intoxicated Billy Patrick Hutto.
Several hours later, Hutto, a repeat DUI offender, ran a red light going 60 mph and slammed into the Longstreets’ car in Lexington County while they were on their way to church. Emma died later in a local hospital.
During this week’s trial, Hutto, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for felony DUI involving death, testified that he had numerous alcoholic drinks at bars in Columbia’s Vista, Jillians and the now-closed Big Ugly. He said he then arrived drunk at the Loose Cockaboose, near Williams-Brice Stadium, where he was served three vodka cranberries.
During the trial, David Longstreet had testified that his neck was broken in three places.
Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council, was in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.
“When you break the law by serving liquor to intoxicated people, and that results in injury or death, you should be held responsible,” Hudson said, adding the verdict sends a message to anyone who serves liquor.
“This isn’t serving ice cream. This isn’t serving donuts,” Hudson said.
The Longstreets’ lawyer, Wally Fayssoux, who tried the case with Paul Landis and Butch Bowers, said, “This was never about the money. This was about getting a verdict and holding a bar accountable for the death of their daughter.”
Fayssoux said, “It was a final opportunity for the Longstreets to stand up and fight for Emma. They wanted the truth, and they wanted a verdict and an acknowledgment by the community that these bars must do more to protect the innocent.”
A lawyer for the Loose Cockaboose, Andrew Watson, argued to the jury that Hutto’s testimony was not reliable and there was not enough convincing evidence to prove the sports bar had served any liquor to Hutto.
Specifically, the jury found that Loose Cockaboose and then-owner Kelly Whitlock were negligent in serving liquor after the state-mandated closing hour of 2 a.m., and that they were negligent in serving liquor to an obviously intoxicated man. However, the jury ruled that Loose Cockaboose is responsible for the $3.85 million in damages.
Since the wreck, the Longstreets, victims’ activists and lawmakers worked to get the S.C. General Assembly to pass Emma’s Law in 2014. It toughens provisions against drunk drivers.
David Longstreet for more than a year talked to about every civic group he could find to push for the passage of Emma’s Law. Placards were posted across the Midlands. Bumper stickers were placed on cars. “Pass Emma’s Law” appeared on signs in front of businesses.
Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins also got involved. His 3-year-old grand nephew, Josiah Jenkins, was killed earlier that year in a car crash caused by a man police said was a repeat drunken driver.
ABOUT EMMA’S LAW
A key provision in Emma’s Law will require, for the first time, that an interlock device be hooked up to a car’s ignition for all first-offense drunken drivers who plead guilty or who are convicted and have a blood alcohol content of .15 percent or higher.
That is almost twice the legal limit for impaired driving. The lock would stay on for six months for a first offense. A second conviction – even for a .08 percent or greater – would keep it on for two years.
Anyone who wants to start the car must blow into the machine with an alcohol breath level of less than .02 percent.
Ignition interlock devices are in use in 35 states. Studies show they help lower DUI-related fatalities.
Any driver stopped on suspicion of DUI who refuses to take a Breathalyzer test also will have to get an ignition interlock device before getting even a temporary license to drive.
Emma’s Law took effect Oct. 1, 2014.