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Boat Club lawsuits won’t sink

Teresa Fralish | Thursday, August 26, 2004

Nearly a year and a half after first learning they were being sued for their January 2003 citations at The Boat Club, many students are finding themselves right back at square one.

Over the summer, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that The Boat Club could bring lawsuits against the students, reversing a lower court’s August 2003 decision to dismiss the cases.

Originally brought by the Millennium Club, owner of The Boat Club, in April 2003, the suits argued that underage students fraudulently represented themselves to the bar and therefore were responsible for the damages it incurred. Consequently, Millennium Club requested that the students be held liable and pay $3,000 each.

The appeals court ruling does not address or affect the substance of the suits. Attorneys for the students have chosen not to appeal this ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court, said Ed Sullivan, attorney for many of the cited students.

The suits now return to the South Bend Small Claims Court, where students have the option to seek a hearing or negotiate a settlement with The Boat Club.

The January 2003 raid by Indiana Excise Police netted 213 “minor in a tavern” citations. Students involved were offered pretrial diversion with a fine and community service hours, and Notre Dame students received additional penalties from the University. The lawsuits came in addition to these punishments.

In its June 11 ruling for Millennium Club, the Appeals Court said that “we recognize the public policy of placing burden of enforcing the underage drinking laws upon the taverns … but we also recognize the competing public policy that the minors should be held accountable for their actions.”

To date, no legal precedent in Indiana exists for the appeals court ruling, though Sullivan’s brief for the students cited case law from several other states in which bar owners had not been permitted to bring such suits.

Both Sullivan and Millennium Club appeal attorney John Hamilton said the court could not consider specifics of the case, only the language used in the original lawsuits.

Sullivan had largely based his argument on public policy considerations and this ruling came as a disappointment.

“The practical effect of that ruling means that all the tavern owner has to do is file. People will settle,” he said.

For their part, some students say they plan to continue their cases at the same claims court, while others have chosen to seek settlements with The Boat Club and bring the increasingly expensive legal process to a close.

“One of my friend’s dads is an attorney,” said senior Jenna Linder, who intends to continue contesting the lawsuit. “I don’t want to give them any money. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

This summer, The Boat Club also concluded negotiations with the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission on penalties the bar would incur as a result of the citations.

Initially, ATC prosecutor Fred Bauer said he recommended that the bar pay a $5,000 fine and have its license suspended for one week.

However, Bauer said he will waive the suspension if the bar goes one year without further minor in a tavern violations. Compared to penalties faced by owners in previous bar raids, such as significantly steeper fines or loss of license, those incurred by The Boat Club were light. In making his decision, Bauer noted that the bar had no violations prior to Jan. 2003 and no violations after.

“I had excise officers check this place,” he said. “They found no other violations. [The Boat Club] apparently ha[s] operated effectively.”