A grieving mother who lost her daughter to a drunk driver in 2012 was granted $5 million in damages by a Tom Green County court on Monday, after nearly two years tied up in a lawsuit against Tracy Lawson, the owner of the Party Ranch bar.
Judith Gartrell filed the lawsuit against the Party Ranch on July 25, 2013, eight months after her daughter Teresa, 32, climbed into the passenger seat of a vehicle with then 26-year-old Carl Bevers at the wheel and sped around the loop.
Bevers, whose blood-alcohol level was 0.199 on the night of the crash, hit a car that was backing out of a driveway in the 3100 block of Houston Harte on the access road, injuring himself, Teresa and the two occupants of the other vehicle. All four were transported to the hospital with injuries; Teresa later succumbed to the injuries and died.
“The accident happened because he was an idiot,” Tracy Lawson said on Monday following the $5 million judgment. “He couldn’t drive in the first place. I had witnesses lined up that said he couldn’t drive…he was just a really bad driver.”
Lawson said Bevers and Teresa had come from Buffalo Wild Wings on that Wednesday night and were out on the patio at the Party Ranch on the night of the incident. The bartenders, he said, never served Bevers.
“The girl that was killed—Teresa, his girlfriend—would come up to the bar and get beers and drinks,” Lawson said. “She wasn’t intoxicated, so we were serving her—or my bartender was serving her—and she was carrying them back and he was drinking them.”
Lawson said he isn’t sure how a bar is supposed to monitor those types of situations and named a couple of other establishments where maintaining a clear view of patrons isn’t possible.
He said that as for the crash itself, he couldn’t attest as to where the couple went after leaving The Party Ranch, but stated 40-45 minutes elapsed between leaving his bar and the car crash.
Attorney Guy Choate, who along with Mary Golder was legal co-counsel for Judith Gartrell, said that there was a video of Carl Bevers dancing on the bar at the Party Ranch that was posted on a website the night of this tragedy and was later taken down.
"They were serving an obviously intoxicated person," Choate said. "Lawson certainly could have presented the 'defenses' he claims, but they were found lacking when the TABC took his license to operate and were not credible." (See video, below)
As the investigation continued, Bevers was indicted on two felonies, including second-degree intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle and third-degree intoxication assault with a vehicle causing serious bodily injury.
With those charges pending, Teresa’s mother filed suit against the Party Ranch, who she found liable for her daughter’s death by negligently overserving Bevers. She was seeking monetary relief for past and future “grief, sorrow, mental anguish, loss of companionship and society,” court documents state.
But the lawsuits against Lawson and the Party Ranch didn’t start there, nor was it the first fatality that would later be attributed to intoxicated patrons of the bar.
In March 2013, when Allen Schmidt helped a drunken Malcolm McBurnett push his truck into the dimly lit road in front of the Party Ranch, an approaching motorcyclist, off-duty U.S. Marine Donald Di Pietro, couldn’t see the vehicle and crashed into the side, killing him.
A little over a month and a half later, on April 25, 2013, Di Pietro’s father, Don Di Pietro, filed a lawsuit against Lawson, McBurnett and Schmidt seeking monetary relief in excess of $1 million. Judith Gartrell soon followed suit.
“The Carl Bevers accident happened in November of 2012 and really, it was kind of forgotten about,” Lawson said. “Nobody said anything about it or anything until the accident happened right here in front of the bar [involving Di Pietro], and then all of a sudden, they filed the lawsuit for the accident in front of the bar, and then they filed the other lawsuit against the other one. Like they thought, ‘well, hell, if we’re going to sue him, let’s just sue the hell out of him!’”
The Di Pietro suit was scheduled to go before a jury in June, however because Lawson has failed to appear at at least the last two hearings, a default hearing has been scheduled for April 17.
Golder said in a Monday interview that Lawson had been attending all hearings in both cases quite diligently until recently, and was surprised when he didn’t show up for the hearing on the Gartrell case on Monday.
Despite his absence, Golder and Gartrell’s other attorney, Guy Choate, presented evidence to support their case in court on Monday, and a judgment was issued following the hearing that he pay $2.5 million for past damages and $2.5 million for those incurred in the future.
“The court had already found that he was negligent, because previously he had failed to comply with discovery requests, so as a sanction, the court entered a finding of negligence,” Golder explained. “So the only issue left to try was that of damages, and…he had agreed to waive a jury trial for that portion of the case…but he didn’t show up today.”
Based on his Monday interview, Lawson seems to have just given up. He spoke of McBurnett, a known drunk with at least two prior felony DWI convictions and noted how he had been released on a personal recognizance bond for another DWI roughly two weeks before the crash that killed Di Pietro.
He said he felt that he was never given a chance to succeed out on Christoval Road and felt sabotaged by law enforcement officers who would wait down the road to hand out DWIs and pin them on the bar.
“That’s another problem that I had because I’m thinking the people in this town, they want to pick on the small guy, which is me,” Lawson said. “Because I ain’t got a lot of money. I can’t afford to go out of town and hire a damn big-time attorney. So they blocked all the attorneys here in this town…that made it where it was impossible for me to hire an attorney here.”
After being “blocked” from successfully seeking counsel, Lawson chose to represent himself, which he admitted was an impossibility. In both cases, Lawson was found to be negligent after ignoring requests for evidence from the plaintiff’s attorneys and failing to respond to subsequent motions.
“I gave it a shot and they pulled their trick cards out—the attorneys—and next thing you know I didn’t even get a trial…” Lawson said. “There’s no sense in me showing up for the other hearings, ‘cause what’s the sense of it? I’m going to lose that case, too, so there’s going to be another big write-up here in June.”
Lawson said the only thing he owns is the building on Christoval Road, and “the bank owns it, really”. He had taken out a loan to open the Party Ranch and said he still owes approximately $200,000 on it, which is more than he feels the building is worth.
He said he doesn’t understand why he’s being sued for large sums of money he doesn’t have, but assumes the suits will inevitably end up in judgments, as the one on Monday was settled.
Golder stated she felt that money would probably never exchange hands for her client, but said that wasn’t the point of the lawsuit. She and Choate worked on the case pro bono, “because it was the right thing to do,” she said.
“We knew we were never going to recover any assets from him, but our goal has always been to put the Party Ranch out of business,” Golder said. “This, coupled with the death of the marine, Mr. Di Pietro, was just a business that needed to be shut down. And we feel good only to the extent that I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Teresa Gartrell was 32 years old when she got into the vehicle on Nov. 21, 2012 and was killed as a result of the crash. Her decision-making abilities, however, were comparable to that of a teenager due to a genetic disorder called Crouzon Syndrome that delayed her mental development.
At 10.5 months old, Teresa was adopted by Gerry and Judith Gartrell, who knew she had a genetic disorder but still wanted to take the child into their home, Golder explained.
Years of hard work at school, surgeries and other struggles drew the family close, and Teresa stayed at home until she was 30, working as a waitress with her mother, who managed several restaurants in Robert Lee and San Angelo.
“This was a child with very special needs, a family that desperately wanted her and raised her and took great care of her, and at 30 it was time for her to move out and her judgment was not the best because of the…Crouzon’s Syndrome, and she made a bad choice and it killed her,” Golder said. “So that’s why she’s in the car with this guy. She’s not thinking very clearly. Her judgment was not that comparable to her chronological age.”
After Teresa’s death, Gerry Gartrell, the victim's father, who had developed an early form of dementia, died within 90 days. Judith then moved out of Robert Lee to Kerrville; there was too much tragedy in the home the family last shared together.
Carl Bevers, now 28, is incarcerated at the Tulia Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He was sentenced to 10 years on Nov. 12, 2013 for intoxication assault with a vehicle causing serious bodily injury and 20 years for intoxication manslaughter with a vehicle.
On March 21 of this year, Bevers came up for parole, but was denied. Judith Gartrell wrote a letter to the parole board expressing her concern about him being released onto the streets to commit this kind of act again, Golder said.
Allen Schmidt, the co-defendant in the Di Pietro death case, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years probation on Aug. 20 last year. Malcolm McBurnett has been committed to a mental institution.
*Amanda Henson and Joe Hyde contributed to this report.