Friday, October 10, 2003

Copyright 2003 Bergen Record Corporation
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Family sues NFL for fan's DWI that left child paralyzed

A Cliffside Park couple sued the National Football League on Thursday, accusing the league of causing a drunken-driving accident that paralyzed their daughter.

The complaint says the NFL promotes the type of drunken behavior that led a fan to down 14 beers at a Giants game and slam his truck into the couple's car as they drove their daughter home from a pumpkin-picking trip.

The NFL has created "a dangerous situation by causing and permitting visibly intoxicated persons in great numbers to consume alcohol and then operate their motor vehicles," says the lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Hackensack.

The 1999 crash in Hasbrouck Heights left 2-year-old Antonia Verni paralyzed from the neck down, a condition that is expected to last the rest of her life.

Two months ago, a judge sentenced the fan, Daniel Lanzaro of Cresskill, to five years in prison after hearing testimony that his blood-alcohol level an hour after the crash was 0.266 percent, more than 2 1/2 times the legal limit for driving.

"What the NFL and the Giants are doing is saying, 'We're having a party, so park your car in our back yard, drink as much as you want, come into the stadium and get more wasted, and then drive home,'-" said Rosemarie Arnold, an attorney for the Verni family. "They are directly responsible for Antonia's injuries, and I think they should be held responsible."

Lanzaro is also a defendant in the lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2001 but refiled Thursday to include the NFL. Other defendants named in the original complaint include the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, Giants Stadium, the Giants, and Aramark, which sells concessions at the stadium.

The NFL was brought in late because the Vernis had to wait for Lanzaro's sentencing before their attorneys could interview him about his actions at the game. Also named in the amended complaint is NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, said league officials couldn't comment on the case Thursday because they had not yet seen the complaint.

Paul Soderman, a lawyer for the Giants, said the case doesn't have merit.

"It's a tragic incident, but the team and sports authority have no responsibility here," Soderman said.

The NFL forbids beer sales after the third quarter, and the Giants go a step further by shutting down beer vendors at the start of the third quarter. In addition, beer sales at Giants Stadium are limited to two at a time.

But that does little to restrain drunken behavior at the games, the Vernis say.

Lanzaro said at his deposition that he easily sidestepped the two-beer rule by sliding the vendor a $10 tip, Arnold said. In turn, she said, the 34-year-old carpenter walked away with a half-dozen beers.

Another lawyer for the Vernis, Christian Stueben, accused the NFL of encouraging alcohol consumption with beer advertising that dumps billions of dollars into the league's coffers. The league is well aware that fans drive home drunk from their games but does little about it, he said.

"I think this case could have a beneficial effect throughout the country, because what you are seeing now is young men being taught that in order to have fun you have to drink and you have to get drunk," Stueben said.

Proving that the NFL or the stadium bears responsibility for the accident will be difficult, because the case attempts to stretch liability too far beyond the person who caused the crash, said Howard Latin, a law professor at Rutgers University.

"I understand they are searching for a deep pocket," Latin said. "But at a certain point, people have to be responsible for their own behavior."

Arnold and Stueben plan to spend the next few months deposing defendants in the case, including Tagliabue. Last week they deposed John Mara, the Giants executive vice president and son of the franchise's co-owner, Wellington Mara.

Beyond the social ramifications of the case, the Vernis' attorneys said, they are working to bring justice to a family decimated by a tragic accident.

Ronald Verni, Antonia's father, has left his job as a CPA to devote himself full time to caring for her. Fazila Verni recently lost her job as an assistant bank manager because she frequently had to leave work to help with their daughter, Arnold said.

"All I care about is this family and this bright little girl who is fully aware that she can't move and won't be able to the rest of her life," Arnold said.