Judge dismisses vandalism charges

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By MICHAEL P. RELLAHAN

Lawyers have at times been known to overstate their clients’ situations when pleading on their behalf.

But West Chester attorney Thomas Bellwoar might be excused for his exaggeration when he discusses his client Sandra Peirson, whom he has represented in various legal actions for years.

“Her poor life,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s like the life of Job.”

Peirson’s tribulations began at age 12, when an uncle accidentally shot her in the face with a BB-gun, leaving her blind in the left eye. They continued 30 years later, when she sat in a Kennett Square restaurant and was struck in her right eye by a bullet fired by a drunken patron. The ricochet plunged her into total darkness, completely without sight.

Most recently, moreover, Peirson lost her oldest son in a horrific crash in southern Chester County, again involving a bar patron who was visibly intoxicated but who continued to drink. Joseph Peirson was 24 when he died and had been his mother’s primary caregiver, living with her in Kennett Square, Bellwoar said.

Now, Peirson, along with her ex-husband Joseph E. Peirson, is suing the owners of the Applebee’s restaurant in East Marlborough, claiming they improperly served alcohol to the driver of the car in which her son was a passenger when he was killed. The suit contends bartenders and servers at the restaurant continued to give drinks to the driver, Shaun Collins, after he was clearly drunk, and even went so far as to help him to his car and get him behind the wheel of his pickup truck.

The suit also contends Applebee’s did not have trained personnel at the restaurant that night who were familiar with the standards of serving alcohol.

Filed in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia, the suit is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in April. The Peirsons are asking for more than $50,000 in damages, the minimum threshold for such actions, charging negligence on behalf of Applebee’s local subsidiaries, Rose Management Services of Newtown and Delaware Valley Rose of Kennett Square.

Under what are commonly called “dram shop laws,” Pennsylvania is among those states, which allow motorists, or others who have been injured, to seek monetary damages against bar owners who serve visibly intoxicated patrons involved in a drunken-driving or other type of crash.

These laws make bar owners and alcohol servers financially liable if their customers become obviously intoxicated on their premises and subsequently injure someone or cause property damage, typically by driving drunk.

Thus, if a person has several drinks at a bar and is visibly intoxicated then gets in a car and kills someone on the way home, the owner of the serving establishment can be sued for damages.

Such suits are not always successful. One question that must be answered in the cases is how visibly drunk the patron was before leaving the bar and getting behind the wheel, and whether a reasonable person would be able to determine the customer’s level of sobriety.

Jerry Marks, whose Philadelphia law firm of Marks, O’Neill, O’Brien & Courtney is representing Applebee’s in the case, declined to discuss his client’s position in the case when contacted Friday. “It’s coming up for trial, and I just can’t comment,” he said.

The accident that claimed Joseph Peirson’s life occurred Oct. 15, 2005. According to the lawsuit and police reports, Collins, a friend of Joseph Peirson, was driving north on Route 41 in Londonderry about 3 a.m., when he lost control of the 2001 Chevrolet Silverado.

In his suit, Bellwoar says Collins, who had a blood alcohol level of .125 when he was tested after the crash, was arguing with other people in the car, taking his eyes off the road, when he lost control.

Driving at speeds estimated later by police to be close to 100 mph in a 45 mph zone, the truck drove onto the north shoulder of Route 41, struck a mailbox, and then crossed into the south lanes and struck a guardrail. The truck traveled about 50 feet along the rail and then became airborne.

The truck went 82 feet in the air before it hit the ground, rolled over and collided with a house on Gap-Newport Pike.

Of the four people in the vehicle, two were thrown from the cab; Joseph Peirson and Tashia A. Gambill, 21, of Cochranville, Collin’s girlfriend. Both died instantly, Gambill being thrown over the roof of the house where the truck crashed.

A fourth person, Nichole Stahis of Kennett Square, was severely injured.

Gambill and Stahis’ families are also suing Applebee’s for its alleged negligence in serving Collins.

Collins was charged with homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, involuntary manslaughter and related charges. He pleaded no contest to two counts of homicide and one of aggravated assaulted while DUI, and was sentenced by Judge William H. Mahon in February 2007 to 9 to 18 years in prison. He is housed at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon.

“It’s a DUI case that should be shown and taught to kids everywhere,” said Assistant District Attorney Carlos Barraza, who prosecuted Collins. “It was, for me, the worst accident scene I have ever seen.”

The case resonated with Mahon as well, but for a different reason. It was Mahon, who in January 2003, sentenced Cesar Arreola-Solis to 11 to 23 months in prison and 1,000 hours of community service for the shooting that left Sandra Peirson blind.

Barraza said Mahon remembered the case and Sandra Peirson.

Sandra Peirson, then 43, was at the Birch Inn in Kennett Square the night of Nov. 11, 2001, sitting at a table having a drink with the bar manager when Solis, who was drunk and who had brought a loaded handgun into the bar undetected, began waving the gun around. At some point, he accidentally fired the weapon, hitting himself in the hand, his brother, sitting next to him, in the ear and Peirson in the eye “due to an unforeseeable ricochet,” according to records.

Left blind, Sandra Peirson could not work and moved in with her mother. She sued the bar owners and settled the case out of court in 2003, a settlement that Bellwoar said allowed her to buy a home in Oxford, where she and her son, Joseph, lived until late summer 2005, when she sold the house and the pair moved back to an apartment in Kennett Square.

A month after moving, Joseph Peirson went out to Applebee’s with Collins and the two women. He never came home. Sandra Peirson moved away from Pennsylvania and now lives in Virginia, where she is cared for by a friend, Bellwoar said.