Honky-tonk from Hell

Liquor and lawsuits keep flowing at the legendary Crystal Chandelier

At a certain point in the evening, the DJ at the Legendary Crystal Chandelier likes to play some of those mesmerizing catastrophe videos.

Images of ships capsizing in high seas, extreme skiers cartwheeling down sheer cliffs, speedboat crashes, bungee cord failures, funny-car wrecks, and other snippets of mayhem flash up on the south wall between a full-sized Texas flag and a jumbo portrait of Hank Williams in a light blue jacket.

Going by lawsuits patrons have filed against the barnyard-sized Lancaster honky-tonk, the Chandelier furnishes some comparable live entertainment from time to time.

One night in August 1993, for instance, Deborah Johnston was at the club with a girlfriend. As Johnston would later claim in a lawsuit, an intoxicated urban cowboy named Kenneth Moore chased her around for a while, asking for a dance.

She finally agreed, and after a few minutes on the club's 90-foot-long dance floor, Moore busted one of those flip-the-woman-in-the-air moves. Unfortunately for Johnston, this was not The Nashville Network, where they actually know how to do that sort of thing.

Johnston landed on her head and was knocked cold. Moore, hammered on beer and shots, wandered away while Johnston lay there for a few minutes, the music playing, people dancing around and over her body, Johnston's suit alleged.

Eventually, a bouncer came to Johnston's aid and began shaking and prodding her, assuming she was passed-out drunk. Hospitalized for neck injuries, she later sued the bar and settled for a modest $16,000, which she has never collected.

Then there was the cowpoke who was run over in the parking lot by a drunken brawler behind the wheel of a Jeep; and the guy who claimed bouncers kicked him and beat him with flashlights until they broke bones.

Both men won judgments against the tangled thatch of corporations, partnerships, and other entities that owned and ran the Chandelier from the mid-1980s until last year.

Like Johnston, both these men got stiffed.
Those lamentable results make the Chandelier a good example of how some clubs and bars have responded to the push against drunk driving.

Rather than protecting themselves from drinking-related lawsuits with expensive liquor liability insurance, some bars simply shelter their assets behind networks of business entities, effectively rendering themselves judgment-proof, say attorneys involved in these suits and representatives of the bar and restaurant business.

In Texas, bars can serve thousands of drinks a night, but are not required to carry liability insurance against serving someone too many. When injuries result, a simple axiom often applies: You can sue, you can win, but good luck if you ever hope to collect a dime.

"At a lot of these places it's drink at your own risk," says Michael Shore, a Dallas lawyer who represented Johnston in her case against the Chandelier.

The 30,000-square-foot club on the edge of Interstate 35 has had a new owner since April 1995, and on May 3 of this year was issued a new liquor license by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

There are no longer "three or four fights a night like when I got here,'' says club manager Larry Stelck, a 44-year-old with a thickened midsection and a big diamond cluster ring who represents a new era for the club.

But when a Glenn Heights laborer claimed to have gotten stinko at the Chandelier before he smashed his truck into a culvert this summer, Stelck's regime was hit with a suit of its own, giving new life to the club's rich history of liquor and lawyers.

Stelck may claim he has tamed the honky-tonk from hell, but the litigation, like some continuous loop of hard-luck C&W, yodels away in the key of 25-cent beer.

Despite the war it launched on drunken driving about a decade ago, the Texas Legislature has never seen fit to press the battle too aggressively against clubs and bars.

In 1987, the Texas Supreme Court for the first time allowed people to sue bars or other commercial sellers of alcohol for the at-times lethal consequences of their overlubricated patrons' behavior. Auto accidents were at the top of the list.

Within a week of the high court's decision, though, the Legislature came to the bars' rescue. It passed a law that put some new barriers in the way of people who sue.

Under the so-called dram shop law, merely showing that a bar served an intoxicated individual who then went out and hurt himself or some innocents is not enough to prevail in a lawsuit. Instead, as the law reads, it must be apparent to the alcohol provider that the person served was obviously intoxicated to the extent that he presented a clear danger to himself and others.

For bar owners, salvation is in the adjectives.
"You usually don't see those qualifiers in the law," says David Brothers, a Houston lawyer who has defended liquor providers and written articles explaining dram shop laws for the restaurant industry and its attorneys.

"It makes these things a lot harder to prove," says Brothers. "You have to bring a witness who saw that person being served after they showed the classic signs of being drunk."

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