Phoenix Strip Club Not Liable For Deaths After Customer Slept, Then Drove Again

Cesar Aguilera Villanueva (Arizona Dept. of Corrections)

A Phoenix area gentlemen’s club is not liable for any of a $2 million judgment ordered by a Maricopa County judge after a patron left the bar, went home, slept for a few hours, then killed two people after rear-ending their vehicle at high speed, the Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled.

tombstone gunfight palaceJaguar’s Phoenix is located on North Black Canyon Highway at the I-10 / I-17 interchange. Its owner JAI Dining Services was sued after Cesar Aguilera Villanueva was involved in a fatal crash shortly after 5 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2015, about three hours after he left the bar following a night of drinking with family and friends.

The victims’ relatives filed the lawsuit against Villanueva and JAI Dining in November 2016. The case resulted in a $2 million judgment last year in favor of the relatives, with 40 percent allocated against JAI Dining.

The company appealed, arguing it had no control over Villanueva’s actions nearly three hours after he left the bar, particularly given efforts he admitted taking to sleep and “sober up.” On Sept. 10, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the judgment against JAI on the basis that there was a lack of proximate causation to hold the company liable for the deaths.

The appellate opinion directs Judge Sherry Stephens of the Maricopa County Superior Court to enter judgment against Villanueva only.  The decision becomes effective Oct. 13 unless the plaintiffs file a petition for review with the Arizona Supreme Court.

Court records show Villanueva, now 28, was at the wheel of a Toyota Tundra when it struck a car stopped at a red light, killing the car’s two occupants.  The Toyota was traveling about 85 mph.

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The day before, Villanueva completed a 12-hour shift at about 6:30 p.m. after which he attended a wedding reception where he had “some beer.” He left there around 9 p.m., then consumed another 24-ounces of beer.

At about 11:20 p.m., Villanueva joined several people at Jaguar’s where he consumed six or seven 21-ounce bottles of beer until escorted out at closing time around 2:20 a.m.

Villanueva drove his truck about 15 miles to a relative’s house, where he drank an energy drink and spent some time trying to “chill out” and get sober. About 4 a.m. a friend drove Villanueva, his sister, his girlfriend, and another partygoer to Villanueva’s house in Villanueva’s truck.

After sleeping for a less than one hour, Villanueva was awoken by his girlfriend to help get the partygoer home. Villanueva and his girlfriend slept in the truck while the partygoer drove to her house.

The accident happened as Villanueva was driving back home. Two hours later he had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of about .078, which experts testified meant his BAC would have been about .11 at the time of the accident in the range of.128 and .166 at the time Villanueva left Jaguar’s.

Villanueva was convicted in February 2017 of two counts of manslaughter. He is currently serving a 14-year prison term and is not eligible for release until September 2028.

This is not the first lawsuit against JAI Dining to make it to the court of appeals.

In June 2014, JAI Dining was sued for overserving alcohol to Pedro Panameno, who was involved in an August 2013 accident which severely injured a Maricopa County man. The victim, Mark Dupray, was stopped at a red light when the scooter he was riding was rear-ended by Panameno at about 45 mph.

Panameno’s BAC was estimated at .210 to .274 at the time of impact. Records showed he consumed a large amount of alcohol before arriving at Jaguar’s at 5 p.m. and while at Jaguar’s. He was given a ride to a friend’s house around 8 p.m. but left a short time later and drove to his girlfriend’s house before driving away after an argument.

A jury awarded Dupray and his wife more than $3.5 million, with 40 percent attributable to JAI. The jurors also awarded $4 million in punitive damages against the company, which appealed both judgments in 2017.

However, the Arizona Court of Appeals overturned the jury’s verdict in November 2018, even though the judges determined the jury “had evidence that JAI overserved Panameno to the point of obvious intoxication.”

The problem, according to the appellate opinion, was that the trial judge erred by refusing to provide jurors an instruction on intervening and superseding causes.

“If the jury decided that Panameno’s two decisions to drive while intoxicated after leaving the club constituted intervening and superseding causes, JAI would not be liable for the (victim’s) injuries and not subject to punitive damages,” the opinion stated, but without an instruction defining those legal terms “the jury had no legal standard to apply” the such a determination.

In August 2019 the Arizona Supreme Court declined to review the appellate decision. The case is now back at the Maricopa County Superior Court awaiting a new trial date, more than seven years after Dupray was injured.

Panameno served 3.5 years in state prison for his role in the accident.