(CN) - A West Virginia man who did not give a ride to drunken teenage girls is not responsible for their subsequent fatal car wreck, a state appeals court ruled.
Misty Johnson, 14, crashed a stolen truck into an embankment after she and her friends could not get a ride from a friend's house where they had been drinking on the night of Dec. 9, 2006. Samantha Staubs, 14, was not wearing a seatbelt and died in the accident. Her 13-year-old Jessica Staubs suffered serious injuries. A third passenger, 15-year-old Kelly Mazur, also survived. No others were involved in the one-car crash.
The girls needed a ride from the party because their host's parents arrived home and refused to let them spend the night.
When no one agreed to pick them up, Johnson and Samantha Staubs stole a truck from a neighboring house and crashed into the embankment minutes later.
Steven Woodward, a 26-year-old man who had bought some of the alcohol that the girls drank that night, pleaded guilty to one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Prosecutors never pressed charges against Jonathan "Ray" Marcus, the 18-year-old who drove the girls and Woodward to the liquor store, and then dropped the girls off at the party.
In a civil complaint against several of the parties involved in the case, Lori Ann Staubs, the mother of Samantha and Jessica, said that Marcus and Woodward negligently provided alcohol to minors.
Though Woodward says that the girls "stole" the alcohol he bought with the girls' money, several witnesses say Woodward gave them the alcohol. Woodward insists that he used the girls' money to buy them cigarettes, not alcohol.
A Jefferson County judge granted Staubs summary judgment in her claims against Marcus, finding that he was negligent in refusing to pick up the girls from the place where he had dropped them off, with alcohol they had procured with his help.
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals reversed, however, after crediting Marcus' claims that he was not involved in the conversation about alcohol.
Marcus also claimed that there was no reliable evidence that he had refused to drive the girls later in the evening.
"We find that the trial court's conclusory determination that the petitioner was guilty of common-law negligence was error," the unsigned opinion states.
The court also highlighted the fact that both parties had stipulated that the facts were not in dispute to obtain summary judgment.
"If the parties desired to avoid a jury trial, it was within their rights to seek a bench trial of the case; however, summary judgment is not a substitute for adjudication through the bench," the decision states.
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