Jury returns $28 million verdict to victims of deadly car crash

| Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, 5:12 p.m.

An Allegheny County jury on Friday awarded the victims of a deadly car accident more than $28 million, sending “an important statement about alcohol safety,” one attorney said.

Jessica Trail, 24, died on Sept. 26, 2009, when the car in which she was riding was struck head-on by another vehicle on Mifflin Road in Lincoln Place. Her boyfriend, Bill Grice, suffered severe injuries 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 drunken driving in 2012 and is serving a two- to four-year sentence at the state prison in Woods Run.

Lesko had attended a gun bash at the Pittsburgh Elks Lodge No. 11 in West Mifflin that day, paying $25 for unlimited food and beer along with raffle chances to win guns. Lesko's blood-alcohol content was 0.226, nearly three times the state's 0.08 legal limit, police said.

Trail and Grice's families and two others who survived the accident sued Lesko and the Elks lodge. They claimed Lesko was negligent for driving at a high speed and driving drunk, and they blamed the lodge for allowing him to consume too much alcohol.

John Gismondi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said self-serve kegs of beer outside the banquet hall were “a disaster waiting to happen.”

The club should have had people watching the kegs and making sure people were not too drunk to drive, he said.

The award, Gismondi said, “was an important statement about alcohol safety, and I hope the message goes out to every social club, such as the Elks, that they need to clean up their act.”

The jury said Lesko was 60 percent responsible for the crash, and the Elks club was 40 percent responsible. Jurors awarded $7 million to Trail's family, $8.3 million to Grice's family, lesser amounts to other victims and $10 million in punitive damages split among the plaintiffs.

None of the survivors or the Trail or Grice families returned calls.

Arlene Pauly, secretary of Elks Lodge No. 11, said she didn't know anything about the decision and referred calls to attorney Jim Young, who represented the lodge.

“We're still looking it over for purposes of possible appeal,” Young said.

Driver Amanda Delval recalled the accident while testifying at trial. She said they were on their way home from a wedding in Munhall when they saw Lesko's vehicle coming around a bend.

Delval said Trail, who was in the front passenger seat next to her, said, “Oh my God,” before the car hit theirs. Delval said she couldn't get out of the car by herself after the crash.

“My feet were shoved up underneath the dashboard,” she said.

Gismondi said he suspects other bars and social clubs in the area don't pay attention to how much alcohol their members drink and “need to get the message.”

“I think that's what the jury was saying,” he said.

In May, Mark and Nicole Cleland of South Park reached a $15.6 million settlement with Hofbrauhaus restaurant and bar when Travis Isiminger, 26, of Greene County consumed the equivalent of a case of beer on Dec. 4, 2010, got into his car and plowed head-on into the couple's car, killing their 7-year-old daughter, Lexa. Eight weeks pregnant, Nicole Cleland suffered a miscarriage.

In June, West View police Chief Bruce Fromlak sued the owner of Billy's Roadhouse in McCandless, where his son drank for seven hours before dying in a car crash.

The lawsuit contends the bartender continued to serve a visibly drunken Jeffery Fromlak, 26, and allowed him to walk to his car and drive away. He died when his car hit a concrete abutment on McKnight Road and flipped over. That case is pending.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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