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Suit targets 2 bars in 1999 DUI death

SHARE Suit targets 2 bars in 1999 DUI death

Joanne Elder wants to make one thing clear to Utah bar owners: Serve too much alcohol to patrons and you will be held responsible.

It's a message she hopes to reinforce if she wins a civil lawsuit against Southern Exposure, 5142 S. State, and Golden Trails, 921 S. 300 West.

The lawsuit, filed this week in 3rd District Court, alleges the two clubs violated Utah's Dram Shop Act. The law, enacted by the Utah Legislature in 1981, prohibits bars or restaurants from serving customers to the point of intoxication or serving somebody who is already intoxicated or is underage.

Elder says Kevin Orgill, 32, visited the two taverns April 18, 1999, was served inordinate amounts of alcohol and was allowed to drive on the same highway her 17-year-old daughter was also traveling.

Just after midnight on April 19, Orgill was on the way to his Grantsville home when his pickup truck spun off westbound I-80 at Magna and ended up perpendicular across all lanes of traffic.

That same night, Grantsville High School junior Anna Johnson and her boyfriend were also headed toward Tooele when Johnson's 1995 Mercury Mystique slammed into Orgill's truck. The headlights on Orgill's truck were off, and Orgill had passed out in the driver's seat before the collision.

Anna Johnson died at the scene. A blood sample taken 90 minutes after the crash showed Orgill's blood level to be 0.16, twice Utah's legal limit.

In November 1999, a jury convicted Orgill of automobile homicide, a third-degree felony. It was Orgill's third DUI conviction. He was sentenced to zero to five years in prison.

Also in 1999, Elder and Garrin Johnson, Anna's father, filed a wrongful death suit against Orgill.

In this new case, filed exactly two years after the fatal accident, Anna's parents are asking for responsibility from the bars and servers who they believe contributed to their daughter's death. Had they realized Orgill was drunk or kept track of the amount of alcohol they served him, Elder said, her daughter might still be alive today.

Managers for Southern Exposure and Golden Trails did not return calls for comment.

According to Earl Dorius, state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control licensing and compliance manager, if a server or bar owner engages in an unlawful sale and "that person goes out and harms somebody, even without a dram shop statute there's an argument that can be made that the tavern owner was negligent. . . . There are basic civil liability principles that might hold them accountable to some degree."

Under Utah's dram shop statute, a person can only collect $500,000 per injury per incident from a specific tavern. The maximum collectable amount is $1 million regardless of the number of people involved, Dorius said.

The suit requests damages for the "pain and emotional trauma suffered by (Anna) before her death," as well as funeral expenses and special and general damages for the young girl's parents.

But Elder insists this case is not about money.

"There's nothing any of us can do to bring Anna back," Elder said. "But if I can stop one mother from feeling what I've felt this last two years, that would be worth it."

E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com