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Too much alcohol in sports stadiums?

From the footage of champagne-doused World Series champions, to the beer man in the stands, alcohol has an undeniable presence in our American sports culture. But for Ronald Verni, whose daughter was left paralyzed when a drunken fan hit their car, concession companies and stadiums need to take more responsibility and better enforce rules on serving alcohol to fans.
A Dateline hidden camera investigation provides some troubling evidence that rules intended to limit dangerous drinking at stadiums across the country are not being enforced.
A Dateline hidden camera investigation provides some troubling evidence that rules intended to limit dangerous drinking at stadiums across the country are not being enforced.Dateline / NBC

If you have ever been to a major sporting event, inevitably you’ve seen them: the fans who have one beer too many.

Sure they are loud, and sometimes obnoxious— but are they dangerous?

One New Jersey family says “yes,” and claims a “culture of intoxication” at sporting events, encouraged by concession companies, is to blame. And after you hear their tragic story and look at what we captured with our hidden cameras, you may agree.

Without question, beer and sports are an inseparable pair in American culture— but a tragic accident has placed the concession companies that serve alcohol at sporting events in a unflattering light.

A Dateline hidden camera investigation provides some troubling evidence that rules intended to limit dangerous drinking at stadiums across the country are not being enforced.

It’s a problem with consequences not just for those at the game—but for anybody who might run into a drunk fan afterward.

Ronald Verni hadn’t thought much about buying beer at ball games until October 24, 1999.

It was on that day that Ronald, a New Jersey accountant and his wife Fazila took their daughter pumpkin picking in Pennsylvania. They liked doing weekend trips. Antonia, the couple’s only child at the time, was just 2 years old.

Fazila Verni: She’s very special because I had a hard time having a baby. And Antonia made it through. That makes her even more special.Ronald Verni: We went on an old train ride with Antonia. And we went around the villages, a little pumpkin picking on the way home.

While the Vernis were off enjoying time together, several miles away, Daniel Lanzaro, a 30-year-old carpenter, was spending a very different kind of day with his family, drinking and watching football.

He arrived at Giants stadium around 10 a.m., well before the start of the afternoon game between the New York Giants and the New Orleans Saints so he could partake in the traditional sports ritual called tailgating. Sports arenas commonly open up their parking lots as many as six hours before gametime so that fans can gather to party.

Lanzaro partied all right. He would later admit he drank outside the ballpark— then kept on drinking inside while he was watching the game.  

Lanzaro, just 5-foot-5 and weighing only 145 lbs., downed between 8 to 12 12 oz. beers during the first half of the game.  And still he kept knocking it back. Lanzaro said he bought six more beers at one time during halftime.

And yet, Lanzaro got behind the wheel that day after drinking a estimated 192 ounces of beer — that’s about 16 cans. He left the football game at the third quarter, drove to two different strip clubs, where he said he did not drink, and then, shortly before 6 p.m., Lanzaro was finally headed home.

As was the Verni family. Ronald says Antonia got sick toward the end of their ride, so her mom, seated next to her in back, removed the child from her car seat and placed her in a regular seatbelt.

Ronald Verni: We were about 10 minutes away from home.Edie Magnus, Dateline correspondent: Did you see the truck coming?Ronald Verni: No, no I didn’t.

They were driving down this street when a red Ford pickup truck suddenly crossed the double yellow line and hit the Vernis’ Toyota Corolla head on.

The driver of the pickup was Daniel Lanzaro.

Ronald Verni: He hit us head on. See that’s the thing that’s really—rough about drunk driving accidents because they are more severe then regular accidents.

New Jersey police would later say the accident was one of the worst they’d ever seen.

Magnus: When did you learn that the man who had hit you was drunk?Ronald Verni: About 10, 15 seconds after the accident. He was staggering. He was really swaying back and forth. He was significantly drunk.

Lanzaro refused to take a breathalyzer at the scene, but later on in the hospital, several hours after hitting the Vernis, his blood alcohol level measured .26 — nearly 3 times the legal limit.

Ronald’s wife was in a coma for two weeks. She faced months of healing, Ronald was told, but she’d be ok. The news about Antonia however was devastating.

Ronald Verni: I went into the emergency room where she was, she had alligator clip marks on her arms and legs. We were just looking for, like a reaction.

The impact of the crash had broken Antonia’s neck and crushed her spinal cord. It left the child a quadriplegic, permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

In August 2003, when Antonia was 6 years old, Daniel Lanzaro pleaded guilty to vehicular assault.  He was sentenced to 5 years in prison.

And that might have been the end of it, but New Jersey, like most states, has laws on the books that say if you have a liquor license, and you serve someone who is visibly intoxicated, you’re responsible for what happens after that person is served. So the Vernis went after not just the drunk driver, but Aramark, the billion dollar concessions company that sells beer here at the meadowlands and at several dozen other stadiums around the country.

Ronald Verni: They sold the beer. They’re responsible.Magnus: Did you go after them because they had he deep pockets in this case and your drunk driver did not?Ronald Verni: No, not necessarily. They were responsible. They served an excessive amount of alcohol. Somebody knew he was intoxicated and they served him anyway.

The case came to trial in December 2004. Antonia Verni was then 7 years old. Lawyers for Aramark argued the company does everything it can to prevent fans from abusing alcohol inside the stadiums it serves.  

Employees agree in writing never serve anyone who is visibly intoxicated, and to serve a maximum of two beers per person per purchase.

But Daniel Lanzaro, you’ll remember, said he’d bought himself 6 beers at once during halftime of that Giants-Saints game in 1999.

Magnus: How did he manage to get a beer vender to sell him that many beers at once?David Mazie, attorney representing the Verni family: He gave him a $10 tip.  But he said that he always did that. Magnus: And it wasn’t a problem.Mazie: It’s not a problem. What we learned here was that they have rules for public perception.  And then we have the reality. The reality was, they don’t enforce their rules. They serve as much beer as they possibly can, and they look the other way.

Aramark’s attorneys argued it was unreasonable to expect the vendors to detect the intoxication level of an experienced, high tolerance drinker like Daniel Lanzaro — an admitted alcoholic. 

But Lanzaro’s sister-in-law who was with him at the game testified he was noticeably “slurring his words” and that his eyes looked “like floating eyeballs in your head.”  “I saw the eyes of a drunk,”  she said.

Aramark has never been able to figure out which of its employees violated company policy and sold Lanzaro all those beers. 

Magnus:  What is the company supposed to do?  I mean, if they have training, and they have a policy.  And they have spotters, right?  Undercover spotters, who are supposed to be identifying any infractions.  What more can they do?Mazie: Enforce the policies. 

According to David Mazie Aramark’s documents show that the company rarely disciplines vendors who sell more beer than they are supposed to.

Magnus: But Aramark did not hit a family on a road.Mazie: Aramark’s the one who made the decision to serve somebody who was visibly intoxicated, repeatedly. To get him to a .27 blood alcohol concentration.  They don’t serve him, the accident doesn’t happen.

The trial lasted a month and included a dramatic appearance by the wheelchair-bound Antonia Verni which left jurors weeping.

They awarded the Verni family $135 million— one portion, largely symbolic, to come from the drunk driver; and the rest $105 million from Aramark.  It was the largest alcohol liability ruling in U.S. history. 

Aramark declined to be interviewed by Dateline for this story, but did issue a statement: “We are sorry about the injuries suffered by Antonia Verni in this automobile accident and our thoughts are with her and her family.” It went on to say Aramark was “disappointed with the verdict and we are currently in the appeal process.”

Verni: They could try it once.  They could try it a 100 times.  Okay?  I love the exposure. Let’s bring it on again. It’s that simple.  Because, what it’ll do is it’ll prevent future Antonias from happening across the country.

So did the verdict send a message that’s gotten through?

'Dateline' undercover
This summer “Dateline” armed with hidden cameras went to major league baseball games in four different cities across the country.

The first stadium we went to is serviced by the Aramark concession company, the same company found liable for the drunk driving accident that paralyzed Antonia Verni.

Dateline undercover producer: Can I get three Coors? Vendor: You can get two.Dateline: Two is the most?Vendor: Yeah.

Aramark vendors, you’ll remember, are only permitted to sell two beers per customer  per purchase...  and at this stadium are required to ID any customer appearing to be under the age of 40.

Vendor: ID please.Dateline: Sure.

When our Dateline producers attempted to buy beer at this game, the majority of the time they were asked for proof of age, and whether ordering from their seats or from a beer stand — our producers were denied more than two beers per purchase.

There was one exception. One of our Dateline producers was served three beers without being ‘ID’ed — both violations of the stadium Aramark’s stated alcohol policy. Yet as the Dateline producer walks away with his three beers, the seller runs up to him.

The seller didn’t take the beer and offer to give us our money back—but he did carry it for a while... and then eventually gave it back to our undercover "Dateline."

Apart from that one infraction, Aramark seemed to be doing a good job enforcing stadium and company policy, including cutting off beer sales at the start of the 8th inning.

And at another game we attended, at another stadium serviced by Aramark, the vendors again followed the rules.

Did that multi-million judgment against Aramark change the way the company does business?

In a letter to Dateline, an Aramark representative said, “Aramark continues to have the most rigorous policies in the industry for the safe service of alcohol.” 

But at two other stadiums where Dateline took its hidden cameras serviced by a different concession company, what we found was troubling.

The concessions at one stadium were operated by SportService— like Aramark, a large concession company that handles sales of alcohol at stadiums and arenas all over the U.S. But at the night game we attended, we observed SportService alcohol policies rarely being enforced.

Half of the time when our Dateline producer with the hidden camera asked for three beers for himself, he got them even though vendors are not permitted to sell someone more then two at one time. And while these beers are called “small,” each one is 24 ounces. So although our undercover producers drank none of the beer we purchased, with one trip to the concession stand, we walked away with the equivalent of a six pack. 

In one instance when our “Dateline” attempted to purchase three beers, the vendor at first refused.

Vendor: I can give two at a time.

But then one beer seller gave our “Dateline” two beers—and then a third for an imaginary guy behind him...

Vendor: Here is two for you and one for the guy behind you.

Time and time again we found SportService vendors who were either ignorant of the rules or simply choose to ignore them. 

And aside from the concessions, the drinking goes on long after the last pitch: our “Dateline” saw fans in the stadium parking lot after the game downing still more of their own beers  before getting into their cars and onto the road.

Our “Dateline” producers were repeatedly served beer in excess of the stated two beer limit at another stadium also serviced by the SportService concession company. And while we were refused more than two beers on occasion, more often we were able to buy more than two  and without being asked for ID. In fact, on two separate occasions, our undercover producers were permitted to purchase four beers for themselves. That's 8 cans worth of beer.

One of our producers purchased three glasses of wine for himself twice— from the same vendor. That's also a violation of SportService policy.

And remember unlike the man convicted of the drunk driving accident near Giants stadium, at no time did any of our producers offer vendors any bribes or tips for all that alcohol.

And once again, the drinking did not stop after the game as fans filtered, some staggering, out to the parking lots to drink beer they had brought themselves.

We sat down with a Rick Abramson, president of the SportService concession company to discuss what we found inside the stadiums serviced by his company.

Rick Abramson, president of SportService: You have to be responsible.  You know, sobriety is no accident.  We have to watch that each and every game.

He assured us his company has high standards on alcohol awareness. In fact, at a recent meeting of SportService general managers from across the country, they played a videotape of Antonia Verni to underscore the stakes of serving too much to the fans.

Abramson: It had an affect on me personally. If you see what happened to that young girl. That’s why we take it so seriously. Magnus: How would you describe your company’s level of awareness about alcohol consumption?Abramson: Oh its very high. You know, vendors take it very serious. It’s their livelihood. They realize the importance of it. If we catch somebody doing more then two beers ah, they’re in trouble.

He says SportService makes its employees sign an affidavit saying no serve someone who is visibly intoxicated— that it trains them to spot drunks— and that the company has undercover people to make sure its vendors follow the rules.

Magnus: How successful do you think you are in enforcing your policies?Abramson: Well, I think we’re very successful.Magnus: I have something to show you.

We played portions of our undercover video showing how, over and over, his employees served our Dateline producers too much beer in clear violation of company policy.

Magnus: Is that your uniform?Abramson: That’s our uniform. This is not our policy.Magnus: Were you surprised by what you saw?Abramson: I was surprised, shocked and disappointed. Magnus: We sent four different people to two different stadiums. And 18 separate times they were allowed to purchase in excess of the stated rules for alcohol.Abramson: It’s just not acceptable. It’s upsetting for me to see somebody breaking the rules. And to see that much is very upsetting for me. We are gonna have to be more diligent with it.

SportService, like Aramark, is now on the receiving end of a lawsuit by Coach Tom Gamboa who claims he was injured by a father and son who’d been overserved by SportService during a baseball game in 2003. SportService says the father and son alone are liable for his injuries.

David Mazie, attorney for the Verni family, says the Vernis believe stadiums should have only a dry tailgate— a one beer per purchase maximum— and random sobriety checkpoints for people leaving stadiums to help insure there aren’t more Antonia Vernis.

David Mazie, attorney for the Verni family: People need to take responsibility for their own actions.  But once you become intoxicated you start losing your judgment. The server, the holder of the liquor license has to serve responsibly.

Antonia, now 8 years old, is not terribly concerned with alcohol policies or who’s to blame for how she ended up.  Her father says she knows only that long ago, somebody hit her and hurt her.

Ronald Verni: She had said to a nurse, I remember I used to be able to walk. When she’s playing with her friends, they’ll see that, they’ll say, “Oh you can’t walk.” She goes, “Well, I can pretend. Or I could imagine.”

As their multi-million dollar victory is being appealed by Aramark, the Vernis have received no money for their daughter’s round the clock care. Antonia can’t move her arms or legs. She can’t eat enough to sustain herself with a feeding tube, and can’t breathe without the aid of a ventilator.

Fazila Verni: I would not wish this on my worst enemy.  It’s very, very hard.

Still, the child is amazingly upbeat: She likes Barbie books, Dr. Seuss, and singing. 

Magnus:  What would you like to be when you grow up?Antonia Verni: Three things:  A kindergarten teacher, a singer, and a ballerina.

Doctors tell the Vernis that Antonia has a 50/50 chance to live to her mid-40s.

Magnus: Do you know how you ended up in this chair?Antonia Verni: No.Magnus: You don’t wanna know?Antonia Verni: No.Magnus: And why is that? Antonia Vernia: Because.  Well, I was born happy, I always stay happy.

When contacted by “Dateline,” the owners of Miller Park and Busch Stadium both said they have programs in place to enforce their alcohol policies and that any violations of their alcohol policies are unacceptable.

In the years since Antonio was left paralyzed by the drunk driver from Giants stadium, the New Jersey Police Department that responded was apparently so affected by the crash, it has made the highest number of drunk driving arrests per officer in the state.