Is Tiger Woods liable for the death of a Woods Jupiter employee? The facts, arguments and possible defenses for the world's most famous golfer.
Is Tiger Woods legally responsible for the death of a man who worked at his restaurant and who, while intoxicated, died in a car crash after leaving the restaurant?
In a wrongful death lawsuit filed on Monday in Palm Beach County Court, the family of the late Nicholas Immesberger argues that the answer is yes.
Woods, along with Erica Herman and the Woods Jupiter restaurant, have been sued for violating Florida Statute 768.125. This Florida statute makes it illegal to knowingly serve a person who is habitually addicted to alcoholic beverages. Immesberger’s family, through an estate, would use a finding that the three defendants violated this statute to prove that the defendants engaged in negligent conduct. Such a finding would help to establish that Woods is at least partly responsible for Immesberger’s death.
The estate’s depiction of facts and accompanying arguments that Woods broke the law
Immesberger was employed as a bartender at Woods Jupiter last year. On Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, Immesberger finished his shift at 3 p.m. The complaint indicates that he remained at the bar and was served alcoholic beverages, apparently for about two and a half hours to three hours.
Immesberger then left Woods Jupiter and drove his 1999 Chevrolet Corvette. While driving home on SE Federal Highway in Marin County, Immesberger lost control of his car and drove it across the northbound lanes. The Corvette continued to travel across the paved shoulder onto a grass divider adjacent to the highway. The car then traveled over a grass embankment and into a culvert. From there, the car then went airborne and, after landing, crashed into a sign and a utility trailer. By the end of its tumultuous journey, Immesberger’s Corvette had been flipped over so that its right side was on the ground.
Immesberger, who was 24 years old, suffered fatal injuries. His blood-alcohol level was .256—which is 3.2 times the legal limit in Florida and which, according to American Addiction Centers, is often associated with the following dire symptoms: “All physical, mental, emotional, and sensory processing functions are impaired. You will feel numb on many levels, and you are at a high risk of choking on vomit, falling and severely hurting yourself, or killing yourself unintentionally.”
The complaint depicts both Woods and Herman—the restaurant manager and also Woods’s girlfriend—as being keenly aware of Immesberger’s struggles with alcohol and yet callously indifferent towards them. Woods, according to the complaint, “knew Immesberger personally” and had also discussed Immesberger’s drinking with Herman. Despite this alleged knowledge, “Woods and Herman [had drinks] with Immesberger at The Woods bar only a few nights before the fatal car crash.”
The complaint also contends that Woods and Herman are responsible for permitting, if not exacerbating, a dangerous workplace culture that promoted excessive drinking. “Employees and management,” the complaint charges, “not only promoted drinking alcohol by its employees, including Immesberger, but it also allowed employees to drink on and off the job.”
Immesberger, the complaint insists, was especially harmed by this culture. The complaint maintains that employees and management had “direct knowledge that Immesberger had a habitual problem with alcohol,” including the knowledge that he “attended Alcoholic Anonymous meetings prior to the night of the crash and was attempting to treat his disease.” Further, “on numerous occasions,” the restaurant allegedly served Immesberger “so much alcohol that he was unable to function properly and had to be taken from the bar by family members and friends to be driven home.”
During a press conference on Tuesday, the estate’s attorney, Craig Goldenfarb, elaborated on the case and evidence. Goldenfarb claims that “video footage from inside the restaurant itself from that day showing Nick Immesberger drinking for three hours has been destroyed” by the restaurant. Goldenfarb also asserts that one of the lawsuit’s purposes is “to prevent the further destruction of evidence.” The attorney also reiterated the claim that Woods and Herman knowingly “fueled Immesberger’s addiction” by serving him drinks. Restaurant employees “didn’t call him a cab,” Goldenfarb pleaded, “they didn’t offer to get him a ride home, they just let him leave.”
Woods responded to the lawsuit on Tuesday by telling media that he is sorrowful about his former employee’s death. “We’re all very sad that Nick passed away,” Woods reflected. “It was a terrible night, a terrible ending.”
The Florida law used to sue Woods
As noted above, the lawsuit is premised on the contention that Woods, Herman and the restaurant violated Florida Statute 768.125. Here is the language of the statute:
A person who sells or furnishes alcoholic beverages to a person of lawful drinking age shall not thereby become liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such person, except that a person who willfully and unlawfully sells or furnishes alcoholic beverages to a person who is not of lawful drinking age or who knowingly serves a person habitually addicted to the use of any or all alcoholic beverages may become liable for injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication of such minor or person.
The relevant portion of the statute is where the law makes it illegal to “knowingly serve a person habitually addicted to the use of any or all alcoholic beverages.” The statute also imposes civil liability for any “injury or damage caused by or resulting from the intoxication.”
This type of statute is sometimes called a “dram shop” act in that it contemplates liability on the part of a person or business that knowingly serves drinks to an alcoholic. Alternatively, the Florida statute could be described as a “reverse dram shop” act since it generally removes liability except in very limited circumstances (one circumstance being knowingly serving an alcoholic). Either moniker conveys the same general point: It is an illegal act to knowingly serve alcoholic drinks to someone who is habitually addicted to alcohol.
Legal arguments Woods will likely raise in his defense
In answering the complaint, expect attorneys for Woods and his co-defendants to raise a number of points.
First, Woods will likely dispute the facts that have been alleged in the complaint. Woods, for example, might quarrel over the claim that Immesberger was served alcohol. Woods might instead argue that, as a bartender, Immesberger served himself.
Woods will probably also reject Goldenfarb’s damning insinuation that Woods and his colleagues partook in the spoliation of evidence—which is a crime—by supposedly “destroying” alleged video of Immesberger being served drinks in the bar. To the extent Woods can prove that no such video ever existed or that it is no longer available due to regular business activities (such as a store policy to preserve surveillance videos for only a certain number of days), the stronger the defense for Woods.
Also, Woods and Herman will emphasize that they are not mentioned in the complaint as serving Immesberger on the day of the crash. It appears that Woods was not in the restaurant that day. Although Woods could still be held liable on grounds that he worsened Immesberger’s condition over a period of time, the estate can’t directly tie Woods to Immesberger’s consumption on the day of the crash. That disconnect should aid Woods in his defense.
Attorneys for Woods also know that Woods’s restaurant is an incorporated corporation under Florida law. Incorporated businesses generally shield their owners from the risk of personal liability in the event the business breaks the law. While that shield can be “pierced” in certain instances, Woods would likely limit his personal exposure if Immesberger’s estate only proves that the restaurant—and not Woods personally—is responsible.
On a separate front, Woods might also deny awareness of Immesberger suffering from such a severe drinking problem. Perhaps Woods could provide testimony, or offer emails or texts, that suggest Woods genuinely didn’t know the extent of Immesberger’s addiction. Likewise, Woods might reject the complaint’s depiction of a restaurant workplace where employees are routinely drinking on the job. Corroborating testimony by other workers at the restaurant could be advantageous to Woods.
As another line of defense, Woods could maintain that Immesberger did not qualify as a person who is “habitually addicted” to alcohol. The complaint asserts that Immesberger attended AA meetings, but it doesn’t mention whether Immesberger has a track record for receiving hospital or clinic treatment related to alcohol abuse or whether he has a history of alcohol-related driving infractions (there is no claim that his driver’s license had been suspended at the time of the crash). Even if Immesberger was habitually addicted, perhaps Woods can insist that neither he nor others who worked at the restaurant were in a position to know such information.
That said, the Supreme Court of Florida ruled in Ellis v. NGN of Tampa that written notice of a habitual drinker’s condition is not required to establish that a defendant was aware of the drinker’s condition—circumstantial evidence can be enough. In this case, the estate will undoubtedly insist that Woods and others at the restaurant observed Immesberger over a period of many months and were thus well-aware of his condition.
The fact that the case did not settle prior to becoming a lawsuit suggests that Woods is confident he will prevail. Before the lawsuit was filed, Woods would have received a demand letter from Immesberger’s estate or, more likely, the estate’s attorneys. Among other things, the demand letter would have invited Woods to resolve the dispute—through a financial settlement—prior to it becoming a public matter. By not settling out of court, Woods appears to accept the risk that the case could damage his reputation and potentially lead to an adverse legal finding.
If Woods and the estate discussed a potential settlement, it’s unknown how much money the estate demanded. It’s also unknown whether insurance companies for Woods, Herman and the restaurant advised negotiating a settlement or waging a defense. If this litigation advances in the courts, the most likely outcome is that the case is resolved with a financial settlement long before any trial takes place.
SI will keep you updated on the case.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.