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$135 million jury award forces new look at high cost of sports and drinking

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  • $135 million jury award forces new look at high cost of sports and drinking

    $135 million jury award forces new look at high cost of sports and drinking
    First of two part series
    Sunday, April 03, 2005

    By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
    Click photo for larger image.

    Tomorrow in Sports: Some critics want college sports officials to rethink the long and lucrative relationship with beer advertisers.

    Paralyzed from the neck down at one fateful intersection, Antonia Verni now casts a sobering shadow over the cultural interchange that merges alcohol and sporting events.

    In fall 1999, returning from a pumpkin-picking trip with her parents, the 2-year-old New Jersey tot suffered a broken neck and a crushed spinal cord at the hands of a drunken driver who got plastered before, during and after an NFL game.

    Earlier this year, a New Jersey jury -- swayed by the argument that a "culture of intoxication" was the root cause of her catastrophe -- awarded her a landmark $135 million in punitive and compensatory damages to be paid mostly by the concessionaire that sells beer at Giants Stadium.

    That verdict, along with an ugly melee between NBA players and fans in Detroit last November, prompted some rule changes and a reappraisal of alcohol policies at many arenas and stadiums. And the changes are advocated by the Verni family.

    "Antonia has a purpose, and that's to send a message about the irresponsibility of over-serving of alcohol at a sporting event," her father, Ronald, said in a telephone interview from the family's home in Cliffside Park, N.J.

    Her injury is so devastating that the breath she takes is dependent on a machine that pumps oxygen through a hole cut into her windpipe, even though she still loves to sing "Fly Me To The Moon" and other favorite songs. Antonia, now 7 and still harboring little girl dreams of becoming a ballerina, requires round-the-clock care and counts on others to lift her in and out of her wheelchair.