MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday voided a $37 million judgment against a Jefferson County nightclub over a deadly drunken driving crash.
The court ruled unanimously that there was not a sufficient effort to notify the nightclub owner of the litigation before a court awarded the default judgment.
“Without proper service, the judgment is void,” Justice Glenn Murdock wrote for the court.
The family of Derric Edwin Rush won the default judgment against Volcano Enterprises after authorities said an off-duty Birmingham police officer drank at its Club Volcano for several hours and then was involved in a traffic accident that killed Rush in November 2009. The suit contended the club kept serving the officer alcohol even though he was visibly intoxicated.
The family said the nightclub owner, Daryl Williams, could not be served with notice of the suit despite repeated attempts, and they published legal notices instead. When he didn’t appear at trial, the court awarded a default judgment.
Court records said efforts to serve notice of the suit at Williams’ home failed because it had been destroyed by a tornado in April 2011. A process server tried to serve him at his nightclub three times, but no workers said they knew him. The Supreme Court said the plaintiff must prove someone is avoiding service in order to notify someone of a lawsuit by running legal ads for four weeks, and that was not done in Williams’ case.
The court said that “the mere inability to find a defendant is not sufficient ground for service by publication.”
The case now goes back to Jefferson County Circuit Court for new proceedings.
The police officer, James Kendrick, was convicted of reckless slaughter and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The Supreme Court’s ruling Friday did not affect a $3.25 million verdict that Rush’s family won against Kendrick, who did appear in court to defend himself against the family’s suit.
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