By Claire Osborn, Austin American-Statesman Staff
A Williamson County jury decided this month that three people were negligent in the drinking death of an underage girl: a liquor store employee, the girl’s mother and the 17-year-old herself.
Savannah Skye Smith died of alcohol poisoning on Feb. 10, 2009, according to a lawsuit filed by her mother, Debra Smith, against the employee of the liquor store, James East, and his wife, Terri Bayless East, who owned the store.
The lawsuit accused James East of knowingly selling alcohol to an underage Savannah at Avery Fine Wines and Spirits on Parmer Lane in Austin from July 2008, when the girl was 16, until the day of her death.
The Easts declined to comment on the verdict. Through their lawyer, Jim Goldsmith, they denied the accusations. Debra Smith, reached for comment Friday, said her daughter told her that she got the alcohol from the liquor store’s bathroom, where James East had hidden it. Smith said she had tried to get her daughter to stop drinking, taking her to doctors and to the hospital, though she said she couldn’t find a rehabilitation facility that would accept the insurance that her ex-husband, Savannah’s father, carried for the teen.
“I tried everything I possibly could to save her,” said Smith, who also said she didn’t have any issues with the jury’s verdict.
The jury awarded $646,269 in medical expenses, funeral expenses and damages to Debra Smith. But she is eligible to receive only 35 percent of it, or $226,194.15, because the jury found that she was 40 percent negligent in her daughter’s death and that her daughter was 25 percent negligent. The jury held that James East was 35 percent negligent.
“In Texas, parents are generally immune from the acts of their children,” said Randy Howry, a former president of the Austin Bar Association and an attorney who specializes in personal injury cases.
But “this kind of case doesn’t happen very often, where a minor gets alcohol and dies of alcohol poisoning at home,” said Howry, who was not involved in the case.
Savannah died in the living room of the apartment where she lived with her mother in Cedar Park, said her mother’s lawyer, Lloyd Robles. She had been partying at the apartment with three friends, who thought she was asleep when they left, he said. Her mother came home from work about an hour later, found her and took her to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead a short time later, Robles said.
Savannah had attended Austin Premier High School, a charter school, but was taking online classes at home and had been sober for a few weeks before she died, her mother said.
“She was a loving, gifted, caring child and never met a stranger,” Smith said.
Robles said he expected the jury to find some negligence on Smith’s part, but he didn’t expect the percentage assigned to her to be so large.
“The evidence which most harmed her mother was photos taken by police as part of the crime scene, which basically showed a collection of empty liquor bottles on top of the daughter’s chest of drawers,” said Robles.
He said photos taken in other parts of the girl’s bedroom showed several empty beer bottles and an empty beer carton. Smith said the empty bottles were a collection from a friend’s grandparents’ house and the beer carton and bottles were not in her daughter’s room until the day she died.
Goldsmith said James East never sold any alcohol to Savannah.
“He never provided alcohol on the day she died or any other occasion,” Goldsmith said. The lawyer said evidence was presented at trial that other people might have bought the alcohol for Savannah, including her friends.
Robles disagreed that East had never sold alcohol to Savannah and said four witnesses testified that the girl got alcohol from the store “on a regular basis.”
Another key issue during the trial was 84 calls between Savannah’s cellphone and the liquor store, including one from James East to Savannah on her 16th birthday, Robles said.
Goldsmith didn’t disagree that the calls were made. But he said that many of them were to report that someone had stolen some merchandise from the store and said that some of the calls she made were when the store was closed. She worked at a nearby pizza place and had information to help the store owners, he said. East called Savannah on her birthday because he was returning a call she made the night before about stolen items, Goldsmith said.
“This is a tragic case of a mother who lost her daughter, and I think this kind of case generates some level of sympathy with the mother,” said Goldsmith. “I think it’s also unfortunate that the jury elected to possibly rely on that sympathy to find someone else negligent.”
He said the Easts might appeal the case.
Howry, the former bar association president, said that “folks on juries these days try real hard to do the right thing.”
“Given the evidence that Mom wasn’t creating a safe environment, it’s not surprising that the jury might find some liability against the mom,” he said, “but it’s surprising that they put more negligence on the mom than than they did on the liquor store.”