The parent company of Husk restaurant has agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family of a Mount Pleasant man killed last winter in a fiery car crash on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, according to court documents.
The accident and subsequent lawsuit sent shock waves through the local restaurant community, a reaction framed by Husk’s rapid rise to fame and high profile nationally.
At least one local restaurant group reacted strongly in the accident’s wake, stunned not only by the human loss but in fear of being held accountable for an alcohol-related death. Another said the events should serve as a painful wake-up call.
Quentin Gregory Miller died at the scene of the wreck on Dec. 17. Police said Miller, 32, was driving a Mustang that was struck from behind, slammed into a concrete wall and burst into flames, trapping Miller inside.
The other car, an Audi, was driven by Adam Joseph Burnell, 32, of Mount Pleasant, who was an assistant manager and sommelier at Husk at the time.
Burnell, who suffered minor injuries, was charged with felony driving under the influence. Evidence provided to prosecutors showed that he had a blood alcohol level of 0.24, or three times the legal limit in South Carolina.
Burnell, free on $52,349 bail while awaiting trial, was not named as a defendant in the civil suit.
In the wrongful-death suit, plaintiffs alleged that the Queen Street restaurant allowed Burnell to drink excessively on the premises after hours, then get behind the wheel too drunk to drive.
Both cars were traveling north on the bridge when the collision happened at 4 a.m. A passerby took a photo of the Mustang ablaze moments later. The suit also alleged negligent hiring, retention and supervision of Burnell by the restaurant.
Neighborhood Dining Group Inc. and its insurance carrier, Peerless Indemnity, are to pay the settlement to the dead man’s parents, Terry and Nancy Miller, and his common-law wife, Maggie Hall. The company has denied any fault or liability in the resolution.
Under the settlement, the Millers are to receive $518,513 and Hall $91,500. The remaining money will satisfy $440,000 in attorneys’ fees and $50,000 in costs. The family is represented by Pierce, Herns, Sloan and Wilson of Charleston.
Carl Pierce, an attorney for the law firm, did not return several phone calls seeking comment about the case. The family also could not be reached.
John Tiller, the attorney for Husk and with Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, said Friday that he would not have anything to say until after the settlement is confirmed in a hearing this week.
David Howard, president of the Neighborhood Dining Group, did not respond to a phone message. The restaurant company also owns and operates McCrady’s and Queen Anne’s Revenge in the Charleston area.
Steve Palmer, managing partner of the local Indigo Road restaurant group, said Friday he was surprised that the lawsuit is being settled.
“I thought it was going to be a very public, ugly lawsuit,” he said. “It cast a really harsh light on our industry. ... It’s a really unfortunate situation.”
Indigo Road is the parent of Oak Steakhouse, O-Ku, the Macintosh and the Cocktail Club. While those restaurants and many others have fueled Charleston’s reputation for fine dining and as a serious “food town,” Husk and its executive chef, Sean Brock, have grabbed much of the spotlight since opening in November 2010.
Just last September, Bon Appetit magazine named Husk “Best New Restaurant in America.”
It’s long been an industry tradition for restaurant workers to have a drink together after work, Palmer said, in the spirit of fun and camaraderie. Husk’s situation made Indigo Road snap to attention, he said.
“I met with all our managers and we changed our drinking policies severely,” Palmer said. “There may have been a lot of gray area before. What it forced us to do was really crystallize — ‘Hey, this is how we feel about it, this absolutely can’t happen at all.’?”
As a result, no employee drinking is allowed at Oak and the Macintosh. At O-Ku and the Cocktail Club, employees may purchase one drink at the end of their shift, “and after that it’s pretty much you need to go somewhere else,” he said.
News of the accident and the fallout “was a very sobering truth for a lot of them,” said Palmer, who gave out his phone number to employees afterward and encouraged them to call him at any time for a ride home, even in the middle of the night. Some have.
Also, “A lot my employees have taken cabs where they never have before,” Palmer said.
Karalee Nielsen, partner in REV LLC, which operates Taco Boy and four other restaurants in the Charleston area, said nothing has changed for the group’s 200-plus employees. Some years ago, “we decided we would go against the industry standard and have a no-tolerance policy for employee drinking.”
Nielsen said part of that came from her working in Salt Lake City, Utah, where no-tolerance was the norm for restaurants and bars. “It wasn’t so foreign to me. I knew it was possible.”
Nielsen said she hoped that Miller’s death has served as a wake-up call for a lot of people working in food and beverage.
“It was really sad for our industry and community that it had to happen at all.”
Industry veteran Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill at Charleston Place, doesn’t keep tabs on the social life of his employees after hours, but he does think many of them go out for some nightlife.
In any case, they aren’t allowed to stick around the grill’s bar and drink. Otherwise, “they’re done.”
Bakst knows well the late-night temptations for those who work in food and beverage. He said he almost self-destructed because of alcohol and drug use when he was coming up in the business. Thirty years ago, he got sober — and hasn’t had a drink since.
“Alcohol kills,” he said bluntly. “Alcohol took a life, destroyed a family and took another life. ... A young man’s career was taken away.”