There are plenty of mistakes and misdeeds for which Tiger Woods can be blamed or held responsible.
The death of an employee at his restaurant is not one of them.
The 15-time major champion and his girlfriend, Erica Herman, are being sued by the parents of Nicholas Immesberger, a 24-year-old bartender who worked at The Woods and died in an alcohol-fueled car crash in December. Immesberger’s parents claim that Woods and Herman, the restaurant’s general manager, knew Immesberger had a drinking problem and yet allowed fellow employees to keep serving him.
“When he needed them, they kind of just looked the other way,” Immesberger’s mother, Mary Belowsky, said at a news conference Tuesday.
It’s understandable that Belowsky and Immesberger’s father, Scott Duchene, are heartbroken over their son’s death. At 24, the whole world was still in front of him. It’s also understandable that, in their hurt and anger, they want someone else to feel some of their pain. Or think maybe it will shed light into the nightmare their life has become.
But there is no cure for their grief, no easy answers to all of their agonizing questions. Only opportunistic attorneys looking for headlines. It hardly seems a coincidence that Immesberger died in December and the attorneys waited until this week, when Woods will be the center of attention at the PGA Championship, to file the lawsuit.
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“We're all very sad that Nick passed away,” Woods said Tuesday. “It was a terrible night, a terrible ending, and just – we feel bad for him and his entire family.”
Immesberger’s family isn’t looking for sympathy, though. It’s looking for retribution.
Immesberger was an alcoholic, his family said, and often stayed after his shifts were done to drink with other employees. More than once, his sister or his father had to go pick him up. The month before he died, he’d been in another crash after drinking at The Woods.
Now, you can ask what someone who was an alcoholic was even doing working as a bartender, and no doubt a jury will – if the case gets that far. You can also ask whether his family warned Woods, Herman or anyone else at The Woods that Immesberger was a danger to himself and possibly others, or asked them to intervene and keep him from drinking.
It’s easier, though, to hold someone else responsible. Especially when that someone is one of the most famous athletes in the world, one whose career is on the upswing again after his own struggles with substance abuse.
“Ultimately everyone bears a certain amount of responsibility, both for themselves and others. But at end of the day, this is a business. This is a business that sells alcohol,” said Spencer Kuvin, one of the attorneys representing Immesberger’s parents.
“And as a business owner and a manager of a business, you’re responsible to make sure that your business is run according to the law.”
Let’s take a closer look at that law, shall we?
Most states have laws that hold bar owners and bartenders responsible if a customer who was overserved causes harm to someone else or damages property. But Florida’s standard is higher, said Larry Burkhalter, a managing partner at Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial in Miami.
In Florida, a server has to know the person being served has a “habitual addiction,” which Burkhalter described as someone unable to resist the temptation to get drunk any time they’re around alcohol. Which, as a bartender, Immesberger would have been every time he worked.
“It’s a really hard standard to prove,” said Burkhalter, who specializes in catastrophic injury and wrongful death. “Simply because he drinks to the point of intoxication, and has done so on more on more than occasion, does not mean he’s habitually addicted.
“If there’s no proof Mr. Woods or Ms. Herman had actual knowledge that Mr. Immesberger had a habitual addiction to alcohol,” Burkhalter added, “then the case fails.”
No one can blame Immesberger's parents for wanting to make sense of their son's death. But their anger is misdirected, and their grief is being manipulated.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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