Elks, Munhall driver sued in fatal DUI case
Testimony began on Wednesday in a civil trial stemming from a deadly car accident in Pittsburgh's Lincoln Place neighborhood that resulted in the death of an Elizabeth couple.
Jessica Trail, 24, died on Sept. 26, 2009, when the car in which she was traveling was struck head-on by another vehicle along Mifflin Road. Her boyfriend, Bill Grice, suffered severe injuries in the crash and died seven months later from an overdose of pain medication.
The driver of the other car, Timothy Lesko, 26, of Munhall, pleaded guilty to drunk driving in 2012 and is serving a two- to four-year sentence in State Correctional Insitiution Pittsburgh.
Attorneys representing the family of the victims and two others who survived the accident with injuries are suing Lesko and Pittsburgh Elks Lodge No. 11 for compensatory and punitive damages.
In his opening statement, attorney John Gismondi told jurors the lodge should be held responsible for the loss and suffering of the plaintiffs because it supplied beer for an event that Lesko attended the day of the accident but failed to monitor how alcohol was consumed by guests.
Lesko's blood-alcohol level was .226 percent the night of the accident.
“They supplied all the beer he wanted and never asked a single question,” Gismondi said, referring to the club which was hosting a fundraising gun bash the afternoon of the accident. The club charged event-goers an admission fee of $25, which entitled them to unlimited servings of food and beer and raffle chances to win guns.
Gismondi said self-serve kegs of beer located outside the banquet hall where the main event was occurring were “a disaster waiting to happen.”
He said the club should have had people watching the kegs and making sure people weren't too drunk to drive when they left.
“The Elks itself may just as well been behind the wheel of that car,” he said, referring to Lesko's vehicle.
Attorney Randy Faust, representing the Elks, said Lesko is “100 percent liable” for his actions and that no one from the club or otherwise complained about excessive drinking occurring at the event.
Faust told jurors the case amounts to a question of whether the Elks served Lesko and let him leave the club when he was visibly drunk, to which he said the answer is “absolutely not.”
Lesko's attorney, Joe Hudock, said his client “made a horrible, horrible mistake” for which he is now incarcerated. He told jurors to be fair when they consider factors in the case such as whether Trail suffered before death or died instantly and whether Grice's death was accidental or suicide.
Hudock said in his statement that the survivors of the crash — driver Amanda Delval and passenger Michael Trail, who is Jessica's brother — suffered initially from the crash but mostly have recovered from their injuries.
Delval remembered the accident on the witness stand on Wednesday.
She said she and the others were on their way home from a wedding in Munhall in her Chevy Cobalt when they saw Lesko's vehicle while coming around a bend.
Delval said Jessica Trail, who was in the front passenger seat next to her, said, “Oh my God,” before the car hit them.
Delval said she couldn't get out of the car by herself after the impact.
“My feet were shoved up underneath the dashboard.”
Attorney Matt Racunas, who is co-counsel for the plaintiffs, questioned paramedic Megan Hart of Lincoln Place about what happened the night of the accident.
Hart, who treated Lesko at the scene, said he smelled of alcohol and was combative.
“He just seemed very irritated and didn't want anything to do with us,” she said.
Linda Seabol, who was tending bar in another part of the lodge the day of the accident but had a limited view of the kegs from her station, testified she didn't notice Lesko at the club that day nor did she see anyone consuming excessive amounts of alcohol.
Seabol said no one from the club was specifically assigned to monitor the beer kegs but that club members were keeping an eye on guests and would have removed anyone who was behaving inappropriately.
“There were people there who were watching the floor,” she said.
Jessica Trail's father, Howard Trail, said he first learned of the accident when he got a phone call from UPMC Presbyterian that his son had been badly injured in an auto accident. He said no one would tell him what had happened to his daughter when he arrived at the hospital until someone finally told him he would have to go to the morgue to identify her.
The father said he'd admired his daughter in a brown dress as she and Grice, who'd borrowed his suit jacket for the day, were getting ready to leave for the wedding.
When he saw her at the morgue hours later, he recalled, “It was the same brown dress she had on.”
“In all the stuff I've been through in all my life,” the father testified, “that was the hardest.”
Attorneys on both sides say the trial could last 10 to 12 days.
Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or firstname.lastname@example.org.