Attorneys for the parents and estate of Michael Joseph Gatto, 18, who died after a violent encounter at the now-closed Rude Rudy’s bar Aug. 28, have filed notice with the city of Statesboro alleging more than $11 million in damages and that the city is to blame for not enforcing its own alcohol laws.
This is not a lawsuit at this point. But attorneys with four Atlanta law firms signed an ante litem notice received by the city Feb. 20. Complying with a six-month deadline that would have expired Saturday, this keeps open the possibility of a lawsuit.
Ante litem means “before litigation” and such a notice is required under Georgia law before suing a city. The plaintiffs would now have two years to actually file a suit.
Gilbert H. Deitch, the lead attorney for the Gattos, acknowledged in a phone interview that the notice gives the city an opportunity to know what the legal claims would be and meets the requirement in case a suit is to be filed. But he would not say whether a lawsuit will definitely be filed if a settlement is not reached.
“We’ve been engaged by the parents of Michael Gatto to represent them, and I can’t speculate on what they or the city may or may not do at this point,” Deitch said. “The area of city immunity and city liability is very challenging, and that’s why I’ve assembled this team of lawyers with different areas of expertise.”
Gatto’s parents are primarily interested in lobbying for changes in Georgia’s liquor laws, and a settlement with the city would help facilitate that effort, Deitch said in a follow-up email.
“The city has $6 million of insurance coverage for losses such as this, and we hope that the city will do the right thing for the family,” he said.
Michael J. Gatto, from Cumming, had arrived as a freshman at Georgia Southern University about two weeks before his ill-fated visit to Rude Rudy’s in University Plaza, which is near campus but on private property.
Statesboro police, called to the club about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 28, found him unconscious, with injuries from an apparent beating. Airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, he died that afternoon.
Police charged Grant James Spencer, 20, a bouncer reported to be at the club but off-duty at the time, with aggravated battery and felony murder. Spencer, who was also a Georgia Southern student, remains in jail awaiting trial.
In a settlement of a city administrative action under the Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance, Rude Rudy’s business owner Jonathan Earl Starkey surrendered his alcohol license in September and agreed never to apply for another in Statesboro. Police had been prepared to bring allegations of multiple incidents in which customers under the minimum drinking age of 21 were served alcohol and that Spencer was one of them.
A staff report to City Council in November detailed lapses in alcohol enforcement beginning in July 2011. In his part of that report, City Attorney Alvin Leaphart concluded that changes culminating in a December 2011 revision of the ordinance had weakened enforcement and that earlier provisions could have prevented Gatto’s death.
The day that report was presented, city officials handed copies of Statesboro’s pouring license applications and the licenses granted during the past five years to an FBI agent who requested them.
“Some of the facts are very troubling, including the FBI inquiry and the city’s own recognition of major problems with alcohol laws,” Deitch said.
Ante litem allegations
The attorneys for Michael and Katherine Gatto and their late son’s estate allege in the notice that the city’s “negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, or intentional misconduct” caused his death.
One thing that could come into play on the city’s side is sovereign immunity, the principle that governments are generally immune from lawsuits for official actions. The notice doesn’t mention this, but it does list ways in which the city allegedly failed to act.
These “include but are not limited to,” the notice says, “failure to enforce municipal liquor laws; failure to carry out mandatory or ministerial actions required by law; … to abate a known nuisance; … to protect against a foreseeable hazard on a property effectively controlled by the City of Statesboro through liquor licensing requirements; … to warn against a foreseeable hazard; … to act where there is a special relationship; and misfeasance with regard to liquor laws and other municipal or state laws.”
Deitch declined to discuss the particular allegations.
The monetary damages asserted in the notice are $163,801 for final medical and burial expenses, $1 million for conscious pain and suffering, and $10 million for wrongful death.
Other named members of the Gattos’ legal team are Michael Terry and Naveen Ramachandrappa of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore LLP; Brian Spears of G. Brian Spears P.C.: and Charles E. Johnson III of Foy & Associates.
Terry and Ramachandrappa bring experience in appellate law and Spears experience in immunity law, while Foy & Associates will provide general legal support, Deitch said.
His own firm, Deitch & Rogers LLC, specializes in representing victims of crime and has 30 years experience in that area, he noted.
Deitch and partner Andrew Rogers were part of the legal team that won a $35 million jury verdict against Six Flags Over Georgia in November 2013. The Daily Report, the Atlanta-based legal newspaper, ranked this as the second largest Georgia verdict of 2013 and the largest of its kind.
A Cobb County jury found Six Flags liable for a customer’s injuries that resulted from his beating by four park employees, identified as gang members, in 2007.
Mayor not surprised
In a phone interview, Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore observed that by serving the notice, the Gattos protected their right to file a lawsuit at some point over the next two years. As for how the city will respond, she said that the city notified its liability insurance carrier after receiving the notice.
In cases such as this, the insurance company usually arranges for the city’s legal representation.
“I’m not surprised, given the gravity of this particular case, that they’re doing what they need to do to maintain their right to sue the city,” Moore said. “Obviously there was a horrific thing that happened to their son, and time will tell how this thing will play out.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.