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Gattos file suit against city
Allege Statesboro officials knowingly weakened alcohol enforcement, set stage for sons death at Rud
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Michael Joseph Gatto

A lawsuit filed Oct. 26 by attorneys for the parents of Michael Joseph Gatto, who was 18 when he died after being punched unconscious by a bouncer at the Rude Rudy’s nightclub, means a jury may eventually be asked to assign a dollar value to Gatto’s life and decide whether the city of Statesboro shares the blame.

Both Gatto and his assailant, Grant James Spencer, were Georgia Southern University students. Gatto, a recent South Forsyth High School graduate from Cumming, had arrived in Statesboro as a freshman two weeks before their fatal confrontation the night of Aug. 27, 2014. Spencer was then 20 and had been working since the previous September at Rude Rudy’s, which was in University Plaza, a privately owned complex near campus. On Oct. 11, he pleaded guilty in Bulloch County Superior Court to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in a plea deal.

Four attorneys from four different Atlanta law firms filed the wrongful death civil suit in Bulloch County State Court on behalf of Michael S. and Katherine Gatto   and their son’s estate.

The complaint seeks compensation for Michael Joseph Gatto’s pain and suffering, his medical and funeral expenses, and “the full value of his life” from the city and up to 11 individual defendants, of whom only City Clerk Sue Starling has been named so far. It also requests punitive damages and legal expenses.

No dollar amounts are stated in the complaint. But in February 2015, the Gattos served the city an ante litem notice – a warning required before suing a local government in this kind of action – that asserted potential claims totaling more than $11 million. This included $10 million for wrongful death damages, $1 million for pain and suffering and $163,801 for medical and burial expenses.

Dollar amounts are not required for the complaint initiating the lawsuit, said the Gattos’ lead attorney, Gilbert H. Deitch. His firm usually does not include them, and in a wrongful death suit the damages are for the jury to decide, he said.

“In terms of what a jury considers, it’s all aspects of that person’s life, as seen by that person,” Deitch said.

Georgia’s law on wrongful death is unique among the states, he said, because it requires that the loss be considered from the perspective of the person who died. Gatto, as an 18-year-old university student, obviously had a limited track record for earning capacity, but courts consider things such as the socioeconomic position of the family and what a young person could have achieved, Deitch said.

“And then there’s pain and suffering,” he said. “That’s the intangible, and I’m sure there was plenty of it for this young man as he was being pummeled, if you can only imagine.”

After he was struck by Spencer inside the nightclub and carried outside, emergency responders found him unconscious there at after 1:30 a.m. Aug. 28, 2014. Airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, he died that afternoon of a fractured skull and other injuries.

Deitch, who was interviewed by phone this week, answered questions about two or three unusual aspects of the lawsuit, but said that the written complaint speaks for itself.

 

Alleges city

created a nuisance

In it, the Gattos assert that city officials both neglected to enforce the city’s alcoholic beverages law and consciously weakened it, allowing bars to remain open that catered to college students under the legal drinking age of 21.

Changes approved by City Council on Dec. 6, 2011, abolished the Alcohol Control Board, which had stopped functioning in 2009, and eliminated a requirement for bouncers to obtain an alcohol service permit that required a criminal background check. Further, the lawsuit alleges that the changes in December 2011 reduced penalties so as to “practically eliminate the possibility of suspension of alcohol licenses” of places that served underage drinkers.

“These changes … created a dangerous environment at establishments in the City of Statesboro by encouraging the sale of alcohol to underage college students by licensees inclined to place personal financial profit above the safety of its patrons, including Rude Rudy’s, and constituted a nuisance that was injurious to the invitees to the premises … and the general public,” the complaint asserts.

The Gattos also assert that city officials incurred responsibility by allowing the club to remain open despite known violations, and also by allowing Spencer to work as a bouncer despite arrests that should have disqualified him. Spencer was serving probation for a May 2013 underage possession of alcohol charge when he began working at Rude Rudy’s in September 2013, and continued to work there after an April 2014 arrest on charges of driving under the influence and possession of false ID.

 

 ‘John Doe Nos. 1-10’

The complaint names only the city itself and Starling as defendants, but provides for up to 10 more defendants, “John Doe Nos. 1-10” to be named later.

Deitch and other lawyers he works with often cite “John Doe” defendants in a complaint because it allows defendants to be added later without a court order, he said. Asked if City Council members or a former city manager would be added, Deitch said it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to answer that.

Starling is named in the suit because she had a legal obligation, he said.

Statesboro’s city Alcoholic Beverage Ordinance, as it existed prior to 2016, authorized the city clerk alone to issue alcohol licenses. A replacement of the ordinance, long in development and approved by City Council only last March, restores a role for the council, which must now hold a hearing before granting a license. But that wasn’t the case when Rude Rudy’s was in business.

The complaint states that Starling and the city issued Rude Rudy’s an alcohol license in 2009 and renewed it each year through 2014. The complaint then states that before Aug. 27, 2014 “there were numerous instances of criminal activity occurring at Rude Rudy’s, including but not limited to, underage alcohol consumption, sale of alcohol to minors, drunken disorderly conduct, fight, battery and aggravated assault.”

“Prior to August 27, 2014, Defendants knew or had reason to know that Rude Rudy’s was a place which posed an unreasonable risk of death or serious bodily harm to citizens including patrons of Rude Rudy’s,” the complaint alleges.

Specifically, the suit states that between January 2009 and November 2010, Rude Rudy’s was alleged to have violated the alcohol ordinance six times but no action was taken. At that time, the city legal code provided that City Council was to revoke a license for five violations within 24 months.

Then, in 2011, the council was authorized to revoke a license for more than four violations, but citations for seven violations against Rude Rudy’s that year resulted in no action by the city, the complaint alleges.

Meanwhile, the ordinance provided that the “city clerk shall schedule a due process hearing before mayor and city council for any license holder alleged to have violated any provision of this chapter,” the lawyers wrote, citing the city code. But Starling, they assert, never scheduled a hearing.

The complaint cites an Oct. 30, 2014, memo to Mayor Jan Moore from City Attorney Alvin Leaphart, who wrote that a former city manager in 2011 had informed him that administrative hearings were subject to a “hold” while changes to the alcohol ordinance were pending. Those were the changes adopted in December 2011.

The memo was part of a 2014 city self-investigation, which found that 42 citations issued by Statesboro police at 16 businesses, including Rude Rudy’s, for alleged alcohol violations in July 2011 never resulted in administrative hearings on the licenses. Under the hold, no further compliance checks were carried out by the Statesboro Police Department between July 2011 and March 2013, the complaint states.

“Such ‘hold’ reflected that the administration of the City of Statesboro was hostile to substantial enforcement of underage drinking laws in and around Georgia Southern University,” the Gattos’ attorneys assert in writing.

A legal principle called sovereign immunity often shields governments from liability for official actions, but the Gattos’ legal team is asserting that the city of Statesboro waived its sovereign immunity by buying liability insurance.

Policy documents showing the limits of the city’s coverage were filed with the complaint.

 

No city reply yet

Starling declined comment when asked about the lawsuit after last Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

“As an employee of the city of Statesboro, I can’t comment on pending litigation,” she said.

Phoned Thursday, John C. Stivarius Jr. of the Atlanta law firm Elarbee Thompson confirmed that he is lead attorney for the city’s defense.

“I really can’t make any comment on the litigation itself,” he said.

But he confirmed that the city has 30 days to file an initial response, through about Nov. 28.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

 

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