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Local

Illinois Supreme Court rules families can sue in fatal crash

In 2007 John Homatas was convicted in a crash after he visited Diamonds Gentleman's Club, and consumed alcohol, near West Chicago. He was later sentenced to prison. The club does not sell alcohol, but allows customers to bring their own for consumption. (Sandy Bressner –  sbressner@kcchronicle.com)
In 2007 John Homatas was convicted in a crash after he visited Diamonds Gentleman's Club, and consumed alcohol, near West Chicago. He was later sentenced to prison. The club does not sell alcohol, but allows customers to bring their own for consumption. (Sandy Bressner – sbressner@kcchronicle.com)

Two families who lost loved ones in a drunken 2006 crash can proceed with suing the strip club where the driver drank the night of the crash, according to an Illinois Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday.

The families of John Chiariello of St. Charles and April Simmons of Yorkville sued Diamonds Gentlemen’s Club near West Chicago – and parent company On Stage Productions Inc. – after Chiariello, Simmons and her unborn child were killed in a Jan. 4, 2006, crash on Route 25.

Driver John Homatas, then 25, of Wayne, was drunk and high when he left the club the night of the crash with Chiariello in his passenger seat, according to trial testimony. Less than a half hour later, his Jeep crashed into Simmons’ SUV on Route 25, near South Elgin.

Attorneys for On Stage claimed their client could not be held liable under the Dram Shop Act because the club is a BYOB facility and does not serve alcohol. Under Dram Shop, those providing alcohol are held responsible for the actions of intoxicated patrons.

But, attorneys for the families say the actions of club employees that night make them liable. According to their argument, employees placed Homatas behind the wheel of his Jeep after he was found vomiting in the club’s bathroom.

The club, located in DuPage County, also encourages drinking, according to the families’ attorneys. Although the county prohibits all nude facilities such as Diamonds from serving alcohol, the club allows the BYOB of liquor only, and provides mixers, glasses and ice.

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed the club can be held responsible and sent the case back to Kane County to proceed.

When the families first filed the lawsuit against both On Stage and Homatas, the case was stalled as attorneys appealed Judge Keith Brown’s decision that On Stage could be held responsible. The 2nd District Appellate Court agreed with Brown, and attorneys for On Stage then appealed to the state’s high court.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court held that although Diamonds did not serve alcohol to Homatas, they have other responsibilities.

“A reasonable jury could also conclude that ejecting Homatas from the club, having the parking valet bring Homatas’ car to the front of the club, and assisting him into his vehicle and directing him to drive off constitutes substantial assistance from, or encouragement by, On Stage toward Homatas in his tortious conduct,” the ruling stated.

But, the ruling noted that the specific circumstances of Homatas and that crash make the case unique.

“We do not hold today that restaurants, parking lot attendants or social hosts are required to monitor their patrons and guests to determine whether they are intoxicated. We hold only that where, as here, a defendant is alleged to have removed a patron for being intoxicated, places the patron into a vehicle and requires him to drive off, such facts are sufficient to state a common law negligence cause of action that is not pre-empted by the Dramshop Act,” the ruling stated.

A jury convicted Homatas, who turned 29 Thursday, in June 2007. He is serving a 12-year prison sentence at Dixon Correctional Center. He’s eligible for parole in January 2018.

Attorneys who argued the case before the Supreme Court last fall were unavailable for comment Thursday.

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