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{February 4, 2010}   Stripper Dances Off With $100K From Club in DUI Case

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A Jefferson County jury has awarded a former stripper $100,000 in a lawsuit in which she claimed the club that employed her failed to stop her from driving home after her on-the-job drinking. Patsy Hamaker of Bessemer was injured in a wreck after leaving work at The Furnace on Oct. 17, 2007. She said she can no longer dance because of her injuries.

Hamaker said the club disregarded its own safety rules when it let her drive home that night. Attorneys for the club argued that employees tried to keep Hamaker from driving away.

The Birmingham News reported that the jury award made Tuesday is for compensatory damages. No punitive damages were awarded.

A former stripper has won a $100,000 award in an unusual employment law case as a jury found a Birmingham, Ala., strip club liable for allowing her to drive home from work “in a highly intoxicated state.”

Patsy Hamaker sued the owner of the Furnace Club for $300,000 in compensatory damages and $900,000 in punitive damages. The award of $100,000 in compensatory damages will only cover her medical costs related to the DUI accident that left her disfigured and with a broken back.

But the Jefferson County Circuit Court jury’s finding of liability against BIT, Inc., was still a notable victory for Hamaker, who had to show by clear and convincing evidence that Furnace managers “wantonly” violated club safety rules limiting dancers to two alcoholic drinks a night and requiring them to keep dancers from driving home drunk.

Kirby Farris

“We did have quite a burden to meet,” Hamaker attorney Kirby D. Farris (Farris Riley & Pitt, Birmingham) tells On Point. “So the fact that the jury returned a verdict of liability says a lot. Given the legal obstacles and the burden of proof in the case, we’re not disappointed.”

Hamaker filed her lawsuit in May 2008, alleging supervisors encouraged dancers to drink by paying them commissions on sales of “dancer drinks” to customers.

BIT contended that Hamaker sold only one dancer’s drink, a $22 half-bottle of wine, on the night of her accident and broke club rules by surreptitiously drinking at least one shot of liquor. Her blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit when she wrecked her car on an interstate freeway.

“Bottom line is she got herself drunk, had a terrible wreck and wants someone else to pay for it,” BIT attorney Davis B. Whittelsey told The Birmingham News.

An ordinary negligence claim would have been easier for Hamaker to prove, requiring only a preponderance of the evidence. But that would have allowed the defense to argue she was contributorily negligent –- and under Alabama law, even a jury finding that she was one percent to blame would have barred her from recovering any damages.

The case went to trial with Hamaker arguing the more difficult theory that by allowing her to leave the club while intoxicated, managers acted wantonly -– that is, with extreme carelessness or indifference to her safety.

A key issue was whether the club enforced its policy of having dancers surrender their car keys when they show up for work. BIT claimed that Hamaker was able to leave The Furnace at the end of her shift because she had a second set of keys but according to Farris, the defense “was never able to produce her keys or produce a witness who actually saw her keys.”

Managers also did not call a friend or a taxi to pick Hamaker up. Witnesses testified that “almost on a nightly basis, dancers left the club intoxicated,” Farris says.

As far as the two-drink limit, Hamaker argued that policy wasn’t followed either as The Furnace tried to boost profits by selling dancer drinks to customers. According to court documents, dancers earn commissions ranging from $5 to $900 on sales of dancer drinks that cost from $12 to $2,500.

“My boss was very adamant about me getting out there and making [drink] sales, for both him and myself,” Hamaker testified.

The jury did not award her any punitive damages –- which seems curious since it found The Furnace liable for wantonness and Alabama law permits recovery of punitive damages for the wanton acts or omissions of a defendant.

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