SANTA FE, N.M. — The Santa Fe Applebee’s restaurant where convicted drunken driver James Ruiz was first served alcohol on March 5, 2010 – before the crash that killed two sisters in town for a basketball tournament – turned a “blind eye” to the fact that some alcoholics can mask their symptoms, the family’s attorney told a federal jury Tuesday.
Albuquerque attorney Zackaree Kelin, who represents the family of Del Lynn Peshlakai, 19, and her sister Deshauna Peshlakai, 17, of Naschitti, told a civil jury in the wrongful death lawsuit that Applebee’s had adopted a different marketing strategy to increase sales during the recession. The new strategy emphasized alcohol sales, he said.
The Peshlakai sisters were killed when Ruiz rammed the rear end of the family’s car on Cerrillos Road. The parents also were injured in the crash.
Ruiz is serving a 42-year sentence for vehicular homicide at the state prison in Grants. The family settled its lawsuit with defendants Blue Corn Cafe, where Ruiz and his buddy Gilbert Mendoza were drinking immediately before the crash, and with insurers for Mendoza and Ruiz.
Ruiz himself filed a now-dismissed state court lawsuit against Applebee’s and Blue Corn Cafe, among others, claiming he was harmed by their alleged negligence in staffing and serving.
But after Applebee’s International and the franchisee of Applebee’s, AmRest LLC, were named in the action, the lawsuit was removed to U.S. District Court, where the trial began Monday before Judge James O. Browning.
Kelin told the jury that when AmRest purchased certain Applebee’s stores in 2008 or 2009 – it owns over 100 locations in eight states – it began offering liquor in larger sizes – “Brewtus” beers that were 18 or 20 ounces, mixed drinks like the “mucho margarita” and shots that were 2 ounces.
New Mexico, meanwhile, had made an effort to curb drunken driving by licensing servers and teaching them to count drinks. He said the evidence will show that AmRest didn’t count drinks right. And he said Ruiz, a chronic alcoholic who had a vodka bottle in a backpack he carried, was already drunk when he went into Applebee’s that afternoon.
Jeff Ray, an El Paso attorney defending AmRest, said he did not believe the evidence would show what Kelin claimed it will.
He said the family had sued Applebee’s late in the game, having already learned about Blue Corn’s alleged role in the tragedy.
Ray portrayed Applebee’s as a member of the community, contributing to Special Olympics and local sports teams as well as encouraging patronage by local law enforcement out of a belief that having patrons with a badge would deter bad conduct.
“This case,” Ray said, “is about no responsibility by James Ruiz. He was not a responsible driver. He was an alcoholic who masked his chronic alcoholism from his family and friends … Not one person will say Ruiz had one sign of intoxication” on the day of the accident.
Ray suggested Kelin had skimmed too quickly past the time Ruiz, Mendoza and friends spent at Blue Corn, where they drank not just beer, but shots of Crown Royal.
The law, he said, is that a person cannot be served if it is reasonably apparent that the patron is intoxicated, and Ruiz did not show signs of intoxication while he was at Applebee’s.