County wants out of woman's drunken-driving death suit, says bar is to blame

David Yates Feb. 24, 2009, 9:14am

Last summer, the Record reported on a suit involving a young woman who left a Beaumont bar intoxicated and died in a head on collision.

Now, one of the suit's defendants, Jefferson County, is arguing for immunity.

Three weeks following her June 5 death, the parents of Meagan Watkins filed a lawsuit against the Dixie Dance Hall, the tow truck driver she struck, Travis Darby, and his employer, Independent Specialty Towing.

When she left the bar, Watkins began travelling west in the eastbound lane of Interstate 10 and struck a stopped tow truck head on. Watkins was pronounced dead at the scene, about five miles west of Beaumont.

A county deputy was on scene at the time of the incident. The officer had assisted in moving oncoming traffic to the shoulder, hoping to avoid a collision, court papers say.

The suit was filed by plaintiff's attorney John Morgan on behalf of Melissa Dwyer, Watkins' mother, on June 23 in Jefferson County District Court.

A few months later after the suit was filed, the county was added as a defendant. The county is currently making a plea to the jurisdiction, arguing it has governmental immunity. A hearing was set for Feb. 23 but was pushed back for a later undetermined date.

"I get the feeling Morgan's real complaint against the (county) is that the officer got out the way," said Assistant District Attorney Tom Rugg, adding that if the deputy had not moved his car, he would have probably been hit by Watkins instead of the tow truck driver.

"Frankly, the real culpable defendant is Dixie Dance Hall … Dixie is liable for a dram shop claim but they've since gone out of business and have no insurance," Rugg said. "Dixie unfortunately turned this drunk on the road."

Rugg said he has no qualms with Morgan or his lawsuit, calling the attorney an "honorable man," and expects the county to eventually be dismissed from the suit.

"(Morgan is) trying to find a way to recover for a family who lost a child," Rugg said.

Case background

In late July, Morgan filed a motion for default judgment against the Dixie for failing to submit a timely answer. He asked Judge Bob Wortham, 58th District, to grant Meagan's parents $15 million in damages.

The former Crockett Street bar and dance club has since filed its answer. And although Morgan's motion is moot, it was the first document in the case that puts a monetary amount on damages.

Two months after the lawsuit was filed, Darby, the tow truck driver, filed an answer, counterclaim and cross claim to the Watkins suit.

He says the claims against him are frivolous and requests that they be dismissed as he files a counterclaim against Meagan Watkins' parents and a cross claim against the Dixie Dance Hall.

According to Darby, on June 5 he was traveling in an eastbound direction on IH-10 when he was forced to stop by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

"The DPS stopped traffic because a vehicle driven by Meagan Watkins was traveling westbound on IH-10 in the eastbound lane, threatening to cause a serious collision," Darby's original complaint states.

"Meagan Watkins' vehicle did indeed strike counter-plaintiff's vehicle head-on, thereby directly and proximately causing injuries and damages to counter-plaintiff."

Darby claims he suffered right knee, lower back and chest injuries.

But Darby goes on to claim that the Dixie Dance Hall is also liable under the Texas Dram Shop Act.

The Dixie breached its duties by serving Watkins when she was clearly intoxicated and presented a clear danger to herself and others, Darby claims, and adds that the Dixie does not qualify for the "safe harbor" defense to dram shop liability.

Morgan is a partner in the Lindsay & Morgan law firm.

The Dixie is represented by attorney Michael D. Getz.

Case No. A181-952

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