Nichole Johnson-Staeuble and her then-fiance Joshua had just finished their chocolate chip waffles at a local Waffle House and were a mile from their Huber Heights home when a drunk driver careened across three lanes of Interstate 70, smashed into the back end of their Pontiac Grand Am and pinned the car against the retaining wall.
Johnson-Staeuble broke her neck, her right arm, and most of the bones in her face. She endured 11 surgeries and incurred $866,000 in medical bills.
Later she discovered the true outrage: The drunk driver who hit her had just gotten off work at an establishment that profits from workers drinking on the job.
“Generally at work, you’re not allowed to drink,” said Johnson-Staeuble, who had to delay her wedding a year and still encounters severe pain. “Anybody else would be fired. It just dumbfounds me to know she was encouraged to drink and not offered a ride home.”
Mary Montgomery, a dancer at The Living Room strip club in Harrison Twp., was sentenced to six months in jail for vehicular assault and drunk driving. A jury last month awarded Johnson-Staeuble a $2.85 million verdict for her injuries against Montgomery and Thirty Eight Thirty Inc., the parent company of The Living Room.
Johnson-Staeuble, 24, is pregnant with her first child, but faces a future of chronic pain and disability. She has yet to see a penny of the settlement money, which she says she needs to pay for mounting medical bills as well as $400 a month in out-of-pocket expenses for pain medications. Yet the Staeubles believe there is a far more important reason for their civil lawsuit —raising public awareness of the dangers of dancers drinking on the job.
The couple believes the public is still at risk because The Living Room has not changed its policy of allowing dancers to drink on the job. In courtroom testimony, The Living Room’s owner, Michael Ferraro, said the club makes more than 50 percent of its profits from drinks that customers purchase for the dancers. He testified that the significant upcharge on dancer drinks is designed to keep the dancers’ drinking in check. Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that higher profits are an “incidental benefit” of the policy.
Andrea Rehkamp, a victim services specialist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s (MADD) Southwestern Ohio Office, said strips clubs like The Living Room continue to pose a public danger — even to those who never go near them. “Rather than seeing that their employees get home safe, these employers’ concern seems to be about profits not safety, not only for their employees but for the general public,” she said. “Ultimately, innocent people’s lives are put in jeopardy each time a dancer leaves their place of employment.”
Dennis Mulvihill, whose Cleveland law firm represented Johnson-Staeuble and who specializes in personal injury cases, said the jury’s verdict sends a message “that you cannot run a business by encouraging them to drink on the job and then putting them on the road after work to drive home in varying states of intoxication.
“They’re putting everybody at risk,” he said. “You have 150 to 200 girls every week who are driving home after drinking, and it’s playing Russian roulette.”
Ferraro’s attorney, Jeffrey Slyman, said The Living Room has not changed any of its policies as a result of the verdict, which is being appealed. Establishments are legally liable, he explained, only if the provider of alcoholic beverages has served a noticeably intoxicated person. “Their practices and policies did not cause injuries to the plaintiffs because there was not a noticeably intoxicated person who left The Living Room.”
Furthermore, Slyman said, the dancers aren’t actually Living Room employees; they sign a lease in order to rent space at a club, much as many hairstylists do.
During the trial, Ferraro testified that Montgomery made the decision to drive drunk that night and that The Living Room is not responsible.
But, said Rehkamp, “The final decision is of course, the driver’s own personal decision to attempt to drive — which is always a bad decision if the person has been drinking alcohol. But clearly, in this specific case, the employer appears to have taken a very important part in that bad decision process.”
Slyman countered, “The Living Room has been in business for more than 10 years and this is the first allegation that has arisen. This could happen at every place in the county, state or nation that provides alcoholic beverages to anyone.”
Chocolate chip waffles
In her testimony, Montgomery said that she never saw any of the club’s management cut off a dancer from drinking. She said servers would often ask customers, “Would you buy the lady a drink?”
“The more a dancer would drink, the more The Living Room would make money,” she testified. Efforts to reach Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.
The case was tried before a jury in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court. In an unusual verdict, damages were split between Thirty Eight Thirty Inc. and Montgomery, whose blood alcohol level registered at 0.096. The legal limit is .08
On July 3, 2010, the newly-engaged Nichole Johnson and Joshua Staeuble celebrated the Fourth of July with friends. After getting home from a fireworks display, they got a late call from friends wanting to join them at The Waffle House. “I had chocolate chip waffles and iced tea, and we had a good time talking with friends,” Joshua recalled.
Around 2:45 the couple were eastbound on I-70 when, from behind, Montgomery’s Ford Taurus slammed into the Staeubles’ Grand Am. “Our car was lifted on top of her car, and slammed against a retaining wall,” said Joshua, a Vandalia Emergency Medical Technician.
He escaped with only a few scrapes, but he knew right away his fiancee was severely injured. She was unconscious, and didn’t appear to be breathing. In addition to a tremendous loss of blood, he said, “she made sounds like she was drowning in her own blood.” Remembering his EMT training, he performed what is known as a modified jaw thrust maneuver, which opened her jaw so she could breathe freely.
“He saved my life,” marveled Johnson-Staeuble, who has no memory of the crash. “If it had been me, I’d have been freaking out.”
Joshua was told his fiancee probably wouldn’t make it through the night, but, he said, “I didn’t want to give up on hope. She is very strong-willed, and I believed in her. I couldn’t understand how something so bad could happen to us, just average people who didn’t do anyone any harm.”
For several weeks, Joshua remained by Nichole’s side as she hovered between life and death. Battling pneumonia, she stayed on a ventilator for three weeks and remained in a coma until early August, a full month after the accident. She didn’t return home until Aug. 25, after seven weeks of hospitalization and rehabilitation.
The couple postponed their wedding for a year while Nichole went through extensive physical therapy for her brain injury as well as multiple orthopedic injuries. Her arm is disfigured with scars, but her face remains only slightly changed after extensive plastic surgery. “One eye is slightly lower than the other, and my eyes are a little further apart,” she said.
She was, however, a beautiful, radiant bride when she married Joshua on May 26, 2012, at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Cincinnati. She wore the same sleeveless wedding gown she had chosen and fallen in love with nearly two years before.
The wedding photos provided no hint they were anything more than the typical joyful newlyweds, but their guests knew they had already been through the “for better or worse” part of their vows.
Married life is different than what they expected. They have less discretionary income for entertainment or eating out. They can’t do as much bicycling and swimming as they did before. “I miss her feeling good and ready for the day instead of being miserable all the time,” Joshua said.
But they also have learned valuable lessons about each other and the durability of their love. “I’ve been amazed by her determination to live life to the fullest,” Joshua said.
Nichole added, “I’ve learned that he ain’t going to be going anywhere. He’ll be with me through thick and thin.”
She is overjoyed about her pregnancy but worries whether she will be able to hold her baby or have the physical endurance to care for an infant. She can’t consider quitting her job as a dialysis technician because she could never afford her health care insurance without a full-time job.
“I don’t want the baby to know I’m in pain,” she said. “I don’t want the baby to grow up not doing certain things because I’m in pain. I have bad days when I have to stay in bed.”
Before her encounter with a driver who left work drunk, Nichole Johnson-Staeuble loved skydiving and all manner of extreme sports. Now, she can’t bend her arm far enough to braid her hair. “When my child wants to ride his first roller coaster, I’m not going to experience that with them,” she said.
The money from the jury verdict, if she ever sees any of it, will go a long way toward taking care of her medical bills, including expenses for a pregnancy that is considered high risk because of her injuries. They already have racked up more than $30,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses.
But that’s not the main reason the couple is happy about the jury’s verdict.
“Our main focus has been the hope that The Living Room will see what they’re doing is wrong and will change their policy,” Nichole said. “We don’t want anyone else to go through this kind of tragedy.”
Video: Josh and Nichole describe the accident on I-70, Nichole’s injuries and their hope for the future.