TRENTON, N.J. – An appeals court on Thursday overturned a landmark $105 million verdict against a stadium vendor that sold beer to a drunken fan who later paralyzed a girl in an auto wreck.
Ordering a new trial, the three-judge state appeals panel said the trial court improperly allowed testimony about the "drinking environment" at the 1999 football game at Giants Stadium.
The family claimed that vendors for Philadelphia-based Aramark Corp. continued to sell beer to Daniel Lanzaro during a 1999 New York Giants game even though he was clearly drunk, and that the concessionaire fostered an atmosphere in which intoxicated patrons were able to still buy alcohol.
Hours later, Lanzaro, then 34, caused the wreck that paralyzed then-2-year-old Antonia Verni from the neck down.
"The admission of this evidence cannot be considered harmless. A central theme of plaintiffs' case was the culture of intoxication at the stadium," the court wrote in its 65-page ruling.
Last year, a state judge in Hackensack rejected an effort by Aramark to throw out the verdict or reduce the January 2005 judgment by a Bergen County jury.
The jury said Lanzaro and Aramark should pay a total of $135 million in damages. At the time, legal experts said it was the largest alcohol liability award in the United States in at least the last 25 years.
Aramark's portion of that award was $30 million in compensatory damages and $75 million in punitive damages.
"While we are saddened by the injuries suffered by Antonia Verni, we are gratified by today's court decision," Aramark spokeswoman Debbie Albert said Thursday.
David Mazie, an attorney for the girl's family, said the ruling will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Mazie said the reversal was based on technicalities and not the amount of the damages. Still, he called the decision troubling.
"The Supreme Court can't allow the verdict to remain," Mazie said. "It's a major societal issue."
The appeals court also said that jurors should not have been told that they could consider and provide compensation for the girl's shortened life expectancy. An economist had testified that the girl will need $42 million worth of care over the rest of her life.
However, the court said a new jury can consider whether other defendants previously excluded can also be held responsible in the case. Those defendants include the National Football League, two bars where Lanzaro drank after the game and a friend of Lanzaro's who drank with him on the day of the accident.
Lanzaro is serving a five-year prison term after pleading guilty to vehicular assault. He settled with the family for $200,000 in insurance money to pay his portion of the damages.
Lanzaro — who had a blood-alcohol level of .226, nearly three times the legal limit — testified he bought six beers at halftime even though he said he had already drunk at least six during the first half and was slurring his speech.