Teen death exposes failure of state insurance laws


If you're a parent you know how it feels to send your child off to school. You worry about their safety and well-being, especially when they go off to college, but you never dream something bad will happen to them.

For one metro Atlanta family their son's night on the town at a college bar turned deadly. Michael and Kathy Lee Gatto's 18-year-old son Michael recently died after being beaten by an employee of Rude Rudy's bar in Statesboro, GA.

It's hard," Michael's father said. "He truly, truly lived every single day."

Michael was a freshman at Georgia Southern University and had only been in college for two weeks.

"You never expect someone to hurt them or steal them from you," Kathy Lee Gatto said.

Now their lives have been destroyed, leaving them racked with sadness and with no financial recourse because of a loophole in Georgia's insurance laws.

"The loss is there every minute of every day and it's a physical pain, it takes your breath away and it's an ache, it's a hole, it's a part of you that's now missing and gone and damaged and broken. And on top of feeling that way, we have to watch our other three children suffer as well," Kathy Lee Gatto said.

Despite being underage, the Gatto's say Michael and his 20-year-old attacker, Grant Spencer, were both allowed in the bar because it was 18 and over. They were also given passes to drink at Rude Rudy's that night. Spencer worked as a bouncer at the bar, but was off duty. Somehow the two got into a fight.

"He hit my son in the head ... our son went to the ground and he continued to hit him ... then he carried him outside and left him," Michael's father said.

Michael was taken to the hospital by a medical helicopter but suffered too much brain trauma to survive. Police arrested Spencer and charged him with battery and felony murder.

"It was not a bar fight, it was not a provoked incident, it was basically a brutal killing, a murder," Michael's father said.

To help cover the medical and funeral costs, more than $150,000, the Gatto's said their attorney's looked into the bar owner's coverage and discovered he did not have liquor liability insurance.

"What we found is this is a much bigger problem because it involves the whole state of Georgia and it involves everyone," Michael's father said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, only 15 states require liquor liability insurance. Georgia is not one of them.

To make matters worse, Rude Rudy's owner shut down the bar.

You're stuck with your pain and suffering, your medical bills, lost wages and you have no recourse," Michael's father said.

State Rep. Mike Dudgeon has been looking into the problem. He hopes to pass a new law next year requiring liquor liability coverage for all businesses serving alcohol.

"They get nothing because usually the owner organizes a business, corporation or partnership which can be legally bankrupt and dissolved and it can be very difficult to pierce that veil and go after the individual people," Dudgeon said.

"The businesses that are doing it the right way should welcome this law," Michael's father said.

Many reputable bars in Georgia do carry the extra insurance, considering it the price of doing good business. But premiums are high, and many smaller operations say they cannot afford the coverage.

"The state is giving them the privilege to sell alcohol which is something the state, by our constitution, regulates and if you're giving them the privilege and they have to pay a fee for that it seems we can make requirements," Dudgeon said.

The Gatto's cling to home videos and photographs of their son Michael. They're left with memories and it's their hope that no one endures the same pain and burden that they have.

"When I hugged him goodbye and gave him a kiss and told him to be safe and sent him off to school, I did not realize that would be the last time I would give him a hug or speak to him in person," Kathy Lee Gatto said.

Michael Gatto's attacker was indicted by a grand jury this month. We've also learned that the owner of the bar where Michael died is involved in opening a new bar at Clemson University called The Study Hall. We contacted the owner of the bar, Jonathan Starkey, where Michael was killed, but he didn't respond. Michael's family is asking for you to support Michael's Law and prevent another tragedy by calling your state lawmaker.

Contact State Rep. Mike Dudgeon

Capitol Address

608-C Coverdell Legislative Office BuildingAtlanta, GA 30334(404) 656-0298

District Address

10075 Normandy LaneJohns Creek, GA 30024

More Contact Info

Georgia House of Representatives

Click here to find your Representative

Georgia Senate

Click here to find your Senator

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