Jury returns $28 million verdict in drunken crash after West Mifflin Elks Lodge event

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On Thursday, as a jury was out deliberating whether the Lincoln Place Elks lodge was responsible for a fatal drunken driving crash, the attorney representing the fraternal organization approached the lawyer from the other side with a settlement offer.

The offer: $1.5 million. Take it or leave it.

Jessica Trail’s family left it.

“To me, I’m very proud of the family having the fortitude to turn down the money,” said John Gismondi, who represented Howard and Sue Trail. “The dad said ‘I’d rather lose this case than lose my dignity.’ ”

He made the right decision.

A jury Friday around lunch time returned with a verdict for the family totalling more than $28 million.

“I can’t explain it. I got so emotional when they started to say all those figures. I had no idea it could be like that,” Howard Trail said.

James Young, the attorney who represented Lodge No. 11, would not comment on the verdict.

“The Elks are looking into their rights to appeal at the present time,” he said.

Jessica Trail, 24, of Elizabeth Township was traveling with three other people on Sept. 26, 2009, when the vehicle they were in was struck by another moving nearly 70 mph in Lincoln Place.

Trail, who was in the front passenger seat, was killed. Her boyfriend, William Grice, was seriously injured and died several months later from an overdose of painkillers. The two others in the car, including Trail’s brother, also were injured.

The driver of the other vehicle, Timothy Lesko, 26, of Munhall ultimately pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle and was sentenced to 2 to 4 years in prison. He currently is at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh.

According to police, Lesko’s blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash was 0.226 — nearly three times the legal limit in Pennsylvania.

Lesko had attended a gun bash that night at the Elks, and the Trail family filed suit alleging that the organization did not monitor alcohol consumption at the event.

There was testimony that there were kegs set up around the room, but no one was tracking how much people were drinking.

“It’s very gratifying, and it sends a strong message about alcohol safety,” Mr. Gismondi said of the verdict. “Alcohol is a big part of what [the Elks] do, and they had no regard for alcohol safety, and I think the jury got that.”

The plaintiffs presented evidence that Lesko was visibly drunk but was allowed to continue to drink more.

“I hope, in a way, this will deter any other establishment from having an event like this because bad things will happen,” Howard Trail said. “You don’t know how devastating something like this is until it happens to you.”

Forty-three witnesses testified in the case that stretched about two weeks before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Alan Hertzberg.

The jury attributed 60 percent fault for the crash to Lesko, and 40 to the Elks. Damages awarded included: $7.7 million for Jessica Trail, $8.3 million for Grice, about $1 million for her brother, Michael Trail, and $400,000 for the other passenger, Amanda Delval.

The jury also awarded $10 million in punitive damages against the Elks.

Mr. Gismondi called it a significant verdict.

“Alcohol safety is more in the public consciousness. People are fed up with irresponsible drinking.”

First Published November 22, 2013 1:31 PM

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