By Patrick Markey
As lawsuits go, it must have seemed a simple case — a family loses a daughter in a tragic car crash and its lawyer sues the car-rental company for negligence.
But this case quickly descended into controversy when the family’s attorney suggested in his lawsuit that the Irish were prone to drinking, and that the car company should have realized the driver was likely to drink because he was Irish.
After telephone calls threatening violence and a blizzard of media attention, last week the lawyer, John Stemberger, decided to file an amendment with the Orange County Circuit Court in Florida to remove any reference to the Irish and drinking.
"The purpose of this lawsuit is not to single out the Irish, British or Caribbean peoples. The purpose of this lawsuit is the hold Dollar accountable for entrusting hundreds of vehicles a year to people who are accustomed to completely different driving conditions in the U.S.," the attorney said in a statement.
The lawsuit, filed against Dollar Rent A Car in Orlando, centers on a car crash that killed a 24-year-old Irishwoman, Carmel Cunningham. Her two young children were injured in the crash. Her boyfriend, Sean McGrath, who police say caused the fatal crash in February 1998, was arrested and charged with DWI manslaughter. But he later failed to show up for a court date and a Florida police issued a warrant for his arrest in March.
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Stemberger said he regretted that comments about the Irish and drinking, which he taken from his conversations with the family, had become the focus of the case and not the culpability of Dollar. The family had told the attorney that Irish life centered on family, the parish and the pub.
"I regret that Dollar is trying to turn this into a push-button ethnic issue and to turn it around completely," Stemberger said.
But any reference to drinking and the Irish would be removed from the lawsuit in an amendment and the case would concentrate on the differences in driving between Ireland, the UK and some Caribbean countries, he said.
Stemberger said Dollar concentrates business on the UK and Irish customers and had failed to adequately warn and train foreign drivers about the different driving conditions. Stemberger has two other lawsuits filed against the Dollar company, both for clients from the United Kingdom, he said.
In a prepared statement, Dollar Rent A Car commented: "Dollar Rent A Car was not at fault in the McGrath accident. We do not condone drinking and driving. A large part of our tour business is European based, therefore, Dollar will never discriminate on the basis of national origin and values its customers in the United States and around the world."
May 26-June 1, 1999