Conn. SC rules against man who got drunk and fell in bonfire

By Kyla Asbury | Jun 10, 2014

HARTFORD, Conn. (Legal Newsline) - The Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled against a man who claimed multiple people allowed him to get intoxicated and fall into a bonfire when he was 20 years old.

The state's highest court ruled that a trial court properly instructed the jury on contributory negligence in a case brought by Joel Stafford.

After a day of drinking in 2007, Stafford became visibly intoxicated and was put in a chair by the defendants, where he fell asleep. He claimed when he attempted to get up, he fell into the bonfire and suffered severe burns.

Justices Chase T. Rogers, Flemming L. Norcott Jr., Richard N. Palmer, Peter T. Zarella, Andrew J. McDonald, Carmen E. Espinosa and Christine S. Vertefeuille all concurred on the opinion, with Dennis G. Eveleigh authoring it.

"This appeal arises from a cause of action for negligence and recklessness...In appeal, the plaintiff asserts that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on contributory negligence because the doctrine is not an available defense to a claim involving service of alcohol to minors," states the opinion, which will be officially released June 17.

"In response, the defendant asserts that the trial court properly instructed the jury on contributory negligence. We agree with the defendant and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the trial court."

On Aug. 25, 2007, Stafford went to the residence owned by Janet Gardner, Tony Gardner and Albert Roadway in Norwich, Conn. While at the residence, Stafford was provided and consumed alcohol to the point of visible intoxication.

Stafford and others then went to a vacant field adjacent to the residence owned by Rick Zieber and Nancy Zieber.

Rick Zieber and Nancy Zieber owned, controlled and maintained the vacant field, and Scott Zieber assisted in setting up a bonfire in the field prior to Stafford's arrival.

While at the field, Stafford consumed additional alcoholic beverages and became more visibly intoxicated while standing and/or sitting around the bonfire.

Stafford subsequently passed out and/or fell asleep in a chair next to the bonfire as a result of his intoxication. When Stafford awoke, he attempted to walk to the woods to urinate and fell in the bonfire, the complaint says.

In August 2009, Stafford filed a complaint, alleging negligence and recklessness in allowing him, an underage drinker, to consume alcohol to the point of intoxication. He named Roadway, Janet Gardner, Tony Gardner, Scott Zieber, Rick Zieber, Nancy Zieber, Shirley Dubicki, April Gregory, Heidi Killiany, Mayleen Soto, Monica Marocchini and Bora Kim as defendants in the suit.

Prior to the trial, the plaintiff filed a motion in limine seeking to preclude the defendant from offering any evidence of the plaintiff's prior history of drug and alcohol abuse, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

The defendant objected and, after hearing oral argument on the motion, the trial court reserved its ruling until trial.

During the course of the trial, the trial court allowed the defendants to introduce certain evidence regarding the plaintiff's history of drug and alcohol abuse, and the trial court then instructed the jury on contributory negligence.

The plaintiff objected to the trial court's instruction, claiming that it was not a proper special defense. Thereafter, the jury returned a verdict for the defendants.

In its interrogatories, the jury answered that the defendants' negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injuries, but found that the plaintiff himself was more than 50 percent responsible. The jury also found that the plaintiff had not met his burden of proving that the defendant recklessly caused the plaintiff's injuries.

The plaintiff moved to set aside the verdict on the ground that the special defense of contributory negligence was not a recognized special defense to a claim involving service of alcohol to a minor. The trial court denied the plaintiff's motion and rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict. The plaintiff then filed an appeal.

The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court properly instructed the jury to consider whether, based on the facts of the present case, the negligence of the 20-year-old plaintiff materially contributed to cause his injuries.

"We determine that, as this court did more than ninety years ago, '[t]his was a matter for them exclusively to decide by applying their judgment and experience to the facts which they should find to have been disclosed by the evidence.'"

Stafford was represented by Mary M. Puhlick of Puhlick and Cartier.

The defendants were represented by Jennifer Antognini-O'Neill of the Law Offices of Jennifer Antognini-O'Neill.

Connecticut Supreme Court case number: SC19092

From Legal Newsline: Kyla Asbury can be reached at classactions@legalnewsline.com.

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