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updated: 5/19/2011 6:07 PM

Lake County couple not liable in underage drunken driving death

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  • Jeffrey Hutsell

      Jeffrey Hutsell

  • Sara Hutsell

      Sara Hutsell

 
By Jeff Engelhardt
jengelhardt@dailyherald.com

SPRINGFIELD -- A Lake County couple are not responsible for the drunken driving death of an underage teen who consumed alcohol at their house, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court found Sara and Jeffrey Hutsell should not be held accountable for the death of 18-year-old Daniel Bell after a 2006 party in their Deerfield home because they did not provide the alcohol and as social hosts, could not be liable under Illinois law.

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Jeffrey Deutschman, the attorney for Daniel's mother Janet Bell, argued the Hutsells voluntarily took responsibility to prohibit underage drinking and monitor and supervise the party. The court ruled there was no claim the Hutsells told that to all the party guests and Jeffrey Hutsell had "requested" those who drink do not drive.

"At most, the allegations of plaintiff's complaint suggest that defendants failed to follow through on an expressed intent to act that might have protected Daniel -- who was legally underage for the consumption of alcohol, but an adult for most other purposes -- against his own volitional acts," the court opinion stated.

The court differentiated this situation from the death of a 16-year-old girl in Orland Park in 1997. In that case, the girl died after drinking a bottle of hard liquor, but the hosts provided the alcohol and took "complete and exclusive charge of her care after she became unconscious." She died after the two hosts failed to seek out medical attention for her.

The court concluded its opinion by stating in the cases Deutschman cited, the defendants asserted control over an inebriated individual that significantly increased the risk of harm to that person. In Bell's case, the Hutsells merely hosted the party and did not claim responsibility for those attending the party.

"He owed Daniel no duty to prevent Daniel's possession or consumption of alcohol," the court ruling said, referring to Jeffrey Hutsell.

While the Supreme Court found the Hutsells innocent in this civil case, they were convicted on criminal charges in a separate case and sentenced to probation. In addition, Jeffrey Hutsell was sentenced to a short jail term.

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