Paralyzed man settles suit for $1.6 million
• Dutch Goose restaurant in West Menlo Park is among the defendants.
The accident that left Richie Kieninger paralyzed is memorialized in a video taken with a camera phone.
In January 2006, a teenage drinking party on Gordon Avenue in West Menlo Park ended abruptly when Mr. Kieninger, then 19, suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck during a wrestling match with a friend.
Now 21, he is confined to an electric wheelchair and paralyzed from the chest down, with limited use of his hands, said Boris Efron, his Portola Valley-based lawyer.
While Mr. Kieninger takes responsibility for his own actions, he's not the only one to blame for his devastating injury, according to Mr. Efron.
There was plenty of blame to go around, judging by the $1.6 million out-of-court settlement Mr. Kieninger just won as a result of his lawsuit against the Dutch Goose restaurant, his wrestling opponent, David Vallarino, and the Wood family, at whose home he was injured.
"Our theme was responsibility for everybody," Mr. Efron said. "Richie admitted what he did wrong, and he wanted the defendants to admit what they did wrong — serving an obviously intoxicated teenager, not controlling a party house. The Vallarinos should have controlled their teenage son. He shouldn't have been out drinking and wrestling either."
Mr. Efron and his co-counsel Timothy Hamilton of San Francisco recovered the entire amount of insurance coverage available to all three defendants — $1 million from the Dutch Goose Inc., $300,000 from the Vallarino Family and $301,000 from Jody Wood.
"It was an incident of innocent horseplay; neither side intended or anticipated any injury to the other," said Lee Danforth, Mr. Vallarino's attorney. "There really is no legal or moral responsibility my client David has to the injured boy."
Mr. Danforth said the settlement was a purely economic decision by the family.
The settlement money is going into a special needs trust to help cover Mr. Kieninger's future care, said Mr. Efron.
Mr. Kieninger, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed.
His wish list includes a more comfortable bed, a better electric wheelchair, and future surgery that could improve use of his hands enough for him to work at the Wood Barn with his father, Tom Kieninger, who owns the furniture restoration business at Allied Arts.
Despite his condition, Mr. Kieninger has stayed optimistic and hopes that breakthroughs in stem cell research and medical science will allow him to walk again someday, said Mr. Efron.
"He's probably the most optimistic catastrophically injured client I've ever had the pleasure to represent," he said.
Mr. Kieninger's case hinged on whether the bartender at the Dutch Goose sold beers to an obviously intoxicated Mr. Kieninger. California law holds an establishment responsible only if alcohol is sold to intoxicated minors. If a teenager gets drunk on the premises but doesn't actually buy the alcohol, the bar or restaurant is not liable, said Mr. Efron.
The owner of the Dutch Goose denied any wrongdoing and said the West Menlo restaurant is careful to prevent underage drinking.
Greg Stern, who took over the Dutch Goose two months before Mr. Kieninger's accident, said his lawyer advised him not to comment on the settlement until it is finalized next week. He said he sympathized with Mr. Kieninger's plight, but asserted that the Dutch Goose was not responsible.
"I feel awful for him. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, " Mr. Stern said.
Under his ownership, the Dutch Goose has been inspected three times by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and has a clean record, Mr. Stern said.
"If anything good has come out of it, as a new owner, it's that we've really stepped up our game as far as how we monitor underage drinking," Mr. Stern said.
The Dutch Goose employees scan all IDs and there are 16 cameras to monitor the restaurant, he said. "If we sell a pitcher with five glasses, we check all five IDs," he said.
An attorney for Ms. Wood did not return a phone call seeking comment on the settlement.