FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – They were near Auburn when the crash happened.
A Honda Civic may have been going 85 miles-per-hour or faster when it collided with the rear of the Chevrolet Equinox. Both vehicles were headed north on Interstate 69 in DeKalb County at the time, and the collision caused the Equinox to roll.
Medics took the couple inside the SUV to a local hospital in critical condition; the driver of the Honda ended up in jail on drunk driving charges.
Now, the couple is suing a Fort Wayne club, claiming the staff violated state “dram shop” laws by knowingly overserving the Honda’s driver before letting him leave in his car and causing the crash.
Kimberly Waltz and Sanford Waltz filed the lawsuit against the owners of Showgirl 1 in Allen Superior Court this week, accusing the club in court documents of “negligent and reckless conduct.”
The Waltz’s, both in their 50s, seek damages from the club for bodily impairment, physical pain and suffering, mental anguish and lost wages – among other ailments – according to the lawsuit.
The crux of the lawsuit, though, will be proving staff at the club knew the man who caused the crash was drunk when he left, according to experts.
“Generally speaking, there is a knowledge requirement,” said attorney Chad Romey, of Blackburn Romey, a personal injury law firm that is not involved in this particular case. “The server has to know the customer had too much.”
The Waltz’s were driving their Equinox just after midnight on March 27, 2021 when the Honda, driven by then 21-year-old Nathaniel Wopshall, rear-ended them, according to court documents and police reports.
At the scene, Wopshall smelled of alcohol, had slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and an unsteady balance, according to court documents and police reports. He also had a blood-alcohol-content of .135 percent after taking a portable breath test, court documents said.
Wopshall had been drinking at the club, located about 15 miles away at 2910 Goshen Road, before the crash, according to court documents. He left club roughly 10 minutes prior to the crash, according to the Waltz’s lawsuit.
He told police at the scene he may have been driving upwards of 85 miles-per-hour on the interstate, court documents said.
The lawsuit claims that the staff at Showgirl 1 served Wopshall with “large quantities of alcohol” and that the staff knew he was “visibly intoxicated,” according to the lawsuit.
The staff also knew that Wopshall was drunk prior to serving his last drink, the lawsuit claims.
According to Indiana’s dram shop laws, a club or server may only be liable for injuries if the person who provided the alcohol knew the customer was indeed intoxicated and that intoxication was a “foreseeable cause” of any injury.
As an example, a server has to know a drunk customer has to drive home.
Sometimes, though, the meaning of words like “know” and “knowledge” are what might be fought over in the court of law.
“‘Actual knowledge’ is the language in the statute, but the case law on the subject says that you can infer actual knowledge based on the surrounding circumstances,” said Romey, who added that he has worked dram shop law cases before.
Circumstances include noticing a customer might have slurred speech or be off balance when walking.
Nothing in the Waltz’s lawsuit spells out how Wopshall was acting at the club, though that would likely come out during the discovery process of the case.
They also claim in the suit Wopshall went nowhere else between leaving the club and then causing the crash, according to the lawsuit.
Sometimes, that becomes a problem in similar cases.
“The biggest hurdles are when someone gets drunk at four different bars,” Romey said. “Or they get drunk at home, and then go to a bar and have a beer.”
Recently, insurance companies have begun to back off providing bars and clubs liquor liability policies, according to Romey, noting a recent trend in the industry.
Attempts to reach the owner of Showgirl 1 were unsuccessful.
Wopshall is facing an August jury trial on charges of causing serious bodily injury when operating a motor vehicle a blood-alcohol-content of .08 percent or higher, operating a vehicle while intoxicated and endangering a person and operating a vehicle with an alcohol concentration equivalent to at least .08 percent but less than .15 percent.