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Alcohol ads lawsuit dismissed
 
Parents of Exeter woman killed in crash will appeal.
By Jason D. Plemons / The Fresno Bee
(Updated Monday, February 7, 2005, 6:46 AM)

The parents of an Exeter woman killed when a drunken driver collided with their daughter's car lost the first step last week in a legal battle against two of the country's largest brewers when a judge dismissed their lawsuitBut it's far from over, they say, and they will not stop until alcohol manufacturers stop what the parents describe as a practice of targeting underage drinkers with their advertising campaigns.

Lynne Goodwin and her husband have sought to force Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. and Miller Brewing Co. to change how they advertise alcoholic beverages. Daughter Casey Goodwin was killed by a drunken driver.
Renee Knoeber / The Fresno Bee

 

Casey Goodwin worked most of her young adult life warning her peers about the dangers of drinking and driving. She learned the ropes from her mother, Lynne Goodwin, who works for the Tulare County Office of Education as an alcohol prevention specialist.

Casey Goodwin, a liberal arts major at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, was on her way home to Exeter for the weekend to celebrate her mother's birthday when a car driven by a drunken driver slammed into her car on Highway 41 just north of Kettleman City. She was airlifted to University Medical Center in Fresno, where she died.

"I can't tell you what that feels like," Lynne Goodwin said of the anguish the accident caused her family.

The driver, 18-year-old Fernando Ochoa of Stratford, was arrested at the scene and charged with drunken driving. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for vehicular manslaughter.

Lynne and Reed Goodwin agreed last year to be lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of their daughter and any California resident who purchased alcohol while younger than the age of 21 during the past four years.

The suit sought to force Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. and Miller Brewing Co. to change how they advertise their beers and alcoholic beverages so that minors are not encouraged to drink, much as tobacco corporations agreed to changes in their advertising practices after the settlement of lawsuits brought by state governments in the 1990s.

Similar cases against other alcohol companies have been filed in Ohio, Colorado, North Carolina and Washington. The lawsuit claims that the two companies have made about $4 billion in sales to underage drinkers during the four-year period that the lawsuit covers. The companies would be forced to give up those profits if the lawsuit were successful.

But on Jan. 31, Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman said that regulating alcohol ads is not the job of the courts. He also ruled that the Goodwins had no standing because they were not actually injured by the brewers.

"We really feel confident that we will win on appeal," Lynne Goodwin said. "There's an error in the decision."

 Part of that error may be in the judge's ruling that the Goodwins had no standing, said attorney Rob Carey, because the judge based his decision partly on Proposition 64, which restricts the rights of those who can sue to those who can prove that they have been hurt.

But the Goodwins filed their suit before that bill's passage.

"A state appeals court just ruled this week that Prop. 64 only applies to cases from its passage onward," Carey said.

 

Lisa Joley, vice president and general counsel for Anheuser-Busch, said the ruling refuses "to excuse minors from responsibility for the illegal act of consuming alcohol."

"Regrettably, lawsuits like this one divert attention from proven solutions to address the serious problem of underage drinking. Independent research shows that parents are the most important influence in preventing teen drinking."

Mike Hennick, spokesman for Miller Brewing, said: "At the very heart of the Goodwin case, you have two parents trying to prevent a tragedy like this from occurring to somebody else."

Hennick added that his company works hard at targeting a specific audience, and that audience is mostly people old enough to legally buy alcohol.

"We are always looking at ways we can help prevent underage drinking," he said. "We work with parents, law enforcement and educators."

But Carey disagrees and claims in the lawsuit that the companies advertise in magazines whose main demographics are teenagers. And they all have a large presence on college campuses, he said.

A study released from the Rand Corp. "found that kids who frequently viewed prominent beer advertising displays in grocery and convenience stores were more likely to begin drinking alcohol than peers who viewed less of these displays."

The study's author, Phyllis Ellickson, wrote: "Advertising that links alcohol with everyday life — such as supermarket store displays — appears to have more influence on drinking initiation."

But the study also suggested that "no evidence was found that television beer ads encouraged adolescents to begin drinking or increase their use of alcohol." They cautioned that further study is needed in that area.

In many ways, Carey said, the Goodwin lawsuit mirrors the early lawsuits against tobacco companies.

"This is the kind of area we specialize in," he said, pointing out that his firm worked on similar lawsuits against the tobacco industry. "These cases are never easy."

Since the accident, Lynne Goodwin and her husband have been leading a campaign in California to fight underage drinking and toughen alcohol-related laws.

An effort to assess a fee on makers of beer and distilled spirits failed to make it out of committee last year, but Lynne Goodwin managed to get the ear of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who established a program that helps trace where underage drinkers get alcohol.

The Target Responsibility for Alcohol Connected Emergencies established guidelines for police officers investigating accidents and incidents that involve alcohol and underage drinkers. The guidelines are designed to help find those who originally provided alcohol to the minors.

In separate legislation, parents of teens who receive a DUI citation could face misdemeanor charges if they knowingly provide alcohol to anyone younger than 21 who then drives and causes a traffic crash.

But the big target is the alcohol industry itself that targets people who are not legally old enough to buy their products, Lynne Goodwin said.

"It's not over," she said. "It's not even close to being over."

The reporter can be reached at jplemons@fresnobee.com or (559) 622-2409.

 

 
       
       

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