A horrific crash that claimed the lives of two young people, severely injured a third and prompted Wellington officials to take steps to curb underage drinking is being blamed on the owners of a popular South Shore Boulevard restaurant that abruptly closed in July.
In a lawsuit filed last week in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, The Grille Fashion Cuisine and its owners are being accused of negligence. The suit claims they illegally served alcohol to 19-year-old Dana McWilliams and allowed her to leave the restaurant even though she was intoxicated.
Driving at speeds reaching 98 mph, the Connecticut teen crashed her Chevrolet Camaro into trees in the median of South Shore Boulevard after leaving the eatery, according to an investigation by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. McWilliams and a passenger in the car, 21-year-old Iowa resident Christian Kennedy, died. Elaine O’Halloran, 24, of Wellington, survived the crash but sustained serious injuries.
Attorney Scott Smith, who is representing Kennedy’s divorced parents in the lawsuit, said the crash could have been avoided had the restaurant refused to serve McWilliams. Kennedy’s mother, Anne Wallis, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Louisville, and his father, Chuck Kennedy, a former White House photographer in the Obama administration, are devastated, he said.
“This case is just a tragedy of epic proportions,” Smith said of the deaths of the two budding equestrians and the severe injuries suffered by a third. He declined to say how much he will seek on their behalf. Boca attorney Marc Brotman is representing O’Halloran.
Juan Gando, who co-owned The Grille with Dustin Parfitt, declined comment. He said the restaurant’s closing had nothing to do with the crash. “I sold it. I got a good opportunity,” he said, adding that he still operates other Wellington restaurants, such as Oli’s Fashion Cuisine, Don Chepo’s Taco Shop and Whitehorse Fashion Cuisine. Parfitt couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Medical Examiner found that McWilliams’ blood-alcohol level was 0.083 percent, only slightly above the concentration at which Florida drivers are considered impaired. However, Florida law establishes a lower level for those who are under the legal drinking age. Because McWilliams was under the age of 21, her blood-alcohol level was four times above the legal limit.
Had she survived, she would have been charged with DUI manslaughter and DUI causing serious bodily injury, sheriff’s investigators wrote.
The investigators said they found two driver’s licenses in McWilliams’ wallet. One belonged to McWilliams and another belonged to a Rhode Island woman who would have been 24 years old on the night of the crash.
While acknowledging McWilliams had two IDs with her, Smith said there is no evidence she used the Rhode Island driver’s license to illegally purchase drinks. “It’s our position that the deceased driver by appearance was clearly under the age of 21 and therefore under the lawful drinking age in Florida,” he said.
He said he anticipates video from the restaurant will prove whether McWilliams used a fake ID to fool servers at The Grille. He will ask Gando and Parfitt to hand over the video as the lawsuit proceeds.
In response to the crash, Wellington officials organized a roundtable with community leaders, law enforcement and restaurant owners to discuss ways to put the brakes on underage drinking. At the meeting, sheriff’s deputies said the use of fake IDs was pervasive in village bars and restaurants.
Restaurant owners said detection of fake IDs has become more difficult because of new more sophisticated technology. Still, they agreed to do their part to help. Restaurateurs, including the owners of The Grille, began offering free rides homes to people who had too much to drink.
Meanwhile, sheriff’s officials launched Operation Wild Stallion. They conducted sobriety checkpoints on local roads and dispatched undercover officers into the village’s bars and restaurants. The special operation ceased in March at the end of the equestrian season but may resume this year, officials said.
Smith noted that the accident isn’t the first. In 2016, world-class show jumper Andres Rodriguez and equestrian Sophie Walker were killed in a crash police blamed on alcohol.
In 2014, Wellington millionaire and polo club founder John Goodman was convicted of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years in prison in connection with an alcohol-fueled 2010 crash that killed 24-year-old Scott Wilson, a recent college graduate. In a civil suit filed by Wilson’s parents, Smith represented Wilson’s father. The Player’s Club, a Wellington equestrian hangout where Goodman drank before the crash, contributed $6 million to a $46 million settlement Goodman’s insurer paid to both of Scott Wilson’s parents, according to court records.
“This is sadly another Wellington community tragedy,” Smith said of last year’s crash.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Smith represented Scott Wilson’s mother in the civil lawsuit against Goodman and the Player’s Club. Smith represented Wilson’s father. Also, information about the settlement came from court records.