STATESBORO -- The parents of Michael Joseph Gatto, the 18-year-old from Forsyth County who died after a violent encounter with a 20-year-old bouncer at Rude Rudy’s bar in Statesboro on Aug. 28, want Georgia’s laws changed to make places that sell alcoholic beverages more responsible.
“Michael’s Law,” as his father, Michael S. Gatto, and mother, Kathy Lee Gatto, envision it, would require that every Georgia business licensed to sell alcohol maintain insurance, including specialized insurance for problems resulting from the use of alcohol, as well as general liability insurance. The legislation would also raise the minimum age for bartenders and bouncers from 18 to 21 and require training for bartenders, bouncers, servers and the business owners who employ them.
Since their son’s death, the Gattos have followed closely the city of Statesboro’s analysis of its failures to enforce alcohol laws. But they also became aware, both through their own experience and from other families who reached out to them, that Georgia as a state requires little of bar owners.
"It is not just a Statesboro issue," said the elder Michael Gatto. "It's everywhere in Georgia, and it's not just an underage drinking thing, although you know Statesboro obviously has a big issue with respect to that, but this really affects every single person in Georgia or people visiting Georgia who walk into an establishment."
The Gattos, who live in south Forsyth, talked by phone Wednesday about the legislation they would like to see enacted this year by the Georgia General Assembly, which convenes Jan. 12. A petition on change.org supporting the legislation — thus far a list of ideas and not a formal document — had drawn more than 4,600 signatures as of Saturday.
His parents also spoke briefly about the kind of young man Michael was and about the violence that claimed him.
Michael, the oldest of their four children, had graduated May 27 from South Forsyth High School. He had been a freshman at Georgia Southern University for two weeks when he went to Rude Rudy’s, a club with an alcohol license then held by Jonathan Earl Starkey.
Statesboro police, called to Rude Rudy’s about 12:40 a.m. Aug. 28, found Gatto unconscious, with head injuries, from an apparent beating. Airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, he died that afternoon. Police charged Grant James Spencer, 20, a bouncer reported to be off-duty at the time of the attack, with aggravated battery and murder in commission of a felony. Spencer remains in jail awaiting trial after a judge denied him bond in October.
Michael S. Gatto called his son’s death the result of an unprovoked attack. Kathy Lee Gatto expressed how they struggle to understand it.
“I think my son was probably fairly naive. He viewed strangers as friends he hadn't met yet,” she said. “He really was a people person, never went looking for trouble, was a fun-loving guy and everybody who knew him liked him, so the thought that someone would hurt him was shocking to us.”
When Statesboro City Council scheduled a license hearing on Rude Rudy’s, police prepared evidence of 28 Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance violations, and a longer-term pattern of incident calls. Starkey then surrendered his alcohol license and accepted a lifetime ban on applying for another in Statesboro.
Meanwhile, the Gattos’ medical bills for the one-day effort to save their son’s life exceeded $150,000. Rude Rudy’s was uninsured, and they learned that Georgia has no requirement of liquor liability insurance — or general liability insurance — for bar owners.
Other people started telling them about incidents resulting in serious injuries at drinking establishments around the state.
“We’d rather have more bills and our son be alive, but these families are being stuck with hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars and lifetime care,” Michael Gatto said.
The new requirements the Gattos are seeking are aimed mainly at preventing future tragedies, not creating a means to recover money, he added.
Liquor liability insurance
As the Gattos see it, the insurance requirement would make bars, stores and restaurants accountable to their insurers, instead of just to the state and local governments. Michael Gatto used the example of Rude Rudy’s.
“If some type of insurance had been in place as a requirement, that place would not have been in business, or if it was in business it would have been operating appropriately, and not preying on underage kids,” he said.
A number of other states do require liquor liability or “dram shop” insurance, covering injuries attributed to the consumption of alcohol.
The Gattos have been working with two state lawmakers, Reps. Geoff Duncan and Mike Dudgeon, both Republicans from south Forsyth, on the legislation.
Interviewed Dec. 23, Duncan said he hopes to introduce the legislation early in the session but that a draft did not yet exist.
“We’re still in the process of just doing a lot of research and understanding all the dynamics that come into it,” Duncan said.
He also referred to the insurance requirement as potentially meeting “a tremendous amount of resistance” in the legislature.
“I don’t want to say that that is not an option. I know that the family is very dialed into that. That was their initial passion, but just looking at the temperament of the General Assembly, it’s going to be such a hard sell to make to mandate that liquor liability insurance,” Duncan said.
Instead, Duncan stressed a need to improve the reporting of violations of local alcohol laws to the Georgia Department of Revenue. Currently, state law requires that cities or counties report violations to the department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Division within 15 days.
But both Duncan and the Gattos referred to Revenue Department officials as saying that only three counties regularly report violations.
“The code currently requires the local issuing authority of a liquor license, if there is a citation, to report that to the Department of Revenue,” Duncan said. “That rarely if ever happens.”
So he proposes clarifying this requirement and creating an Internet portal for local governments to report violations. The Department of Revenue could then look more closely at these businesses and consider local violations in deciding whether to renew an establishment’s state license each year, Duncan said. He also proposes a requirement for license holders to report any violation themselves within a timeframe yet to be determined.
“We don’t want to create a burden to the industry,” Duncan said. “What we want to do is create a burden to folks who habitually break the law.”
The Gattos are skeptical of these reporting requirements. Kathy Lee Gatto called self-reporting “the fox guarding the henhouse.”
“Geoff Duncan is aware that we are still pushing the insurance,” said Michael Gatto, who praised the legislators for their help. “We’re not letting up on that. We think that it is a critical component of the legislation.”
The minimum age of 21 would apply to bartenders and bouncers, but not to servers who wait tables in restaurants. Duncan plans to include this requirement in the bill, but he noted that the definition of “bouncer” will need to be worked out by legislative lawyers. He also mentioned training requirements as part of the legislation.
Duncan, who spent time with the Gattos as their family tragedy affected the community, said he has been encouraged by their forward-looking perspective.
“I’m a father of three young boys, and it’s hard to even fathom the pain that they continue to go through, but their attitude towards making a difference is awesome to watch,” he said.