HOUSTON – Amber Jeffrey’s life came to an abrupt end on June 30, 2009, when she plowed her Ford Focus into an oncoming car.
"Kids aren’t supposed to die before their parents," her father, Scott Jeffrey said, choking back tears.
He last spoke to his 17-year-old daughter just hours before she died.
Amber was at a warehouse, owned by her best friend’s family.
Later that night, Amber’s blood alcohol level was above the legal limit when she went drag-racing down Tanner Road with several other teens and crashed her car.
According to the accident report, two teen survivors were cited for drunk driving and had their licenses suspended.
Three teens admitted to deputies that they’d been drinking at the warehouse that night.
Now, Scott Jeffrey is suing the older teens who were at the party, the parents who owned the warehouse and their company.
"It’s the Spelling Company Warehouse, and supposedly they’re having parties over there. There’s alcohol and drinking. We looked on Facebook," he said.
He maintains the Spellings provided alcohol for the teens, along with a safe place to consume it. He also alleges an employee bought some of the beer.
Publicly posted videos and photos on Facebook and MySpace pages apparently showed beer, drinks, parties and a refrigerator at the warehouse.
"They’re allowing kids to drink. Who are they to decide to let my child drink?" Scott Jeffrey said.
11 News contacted the Spellings, whose attorney provided the following statement:
"The Spellings are deeply saddened by the death of Amber Jeffrey and have already expressed their condolences ... The Spellings deny Mr. Jeffrey’s liability allegations because they are not true and are not supported by the facts."
But should Amber have known better than to drink, get drunk and drive? Is it someone else’s fault that she made that choice?
"She was a child, when you’re a child you make mistakes. You’re learning," Scott Jeffrey said.
His anger is focused on the Spellings.
"They’re adults. They shouldn’t be doing that," he said.
In Texas, a host who serves alcohol to someone underage can be held liable for injuries suffered after that person leaves their property. It’s called "social host liability."
The issue recently made headlines when Texas Supreme Court Justice Tom Phillips was sued for allegedly allowing his underage son to have drinking parties that led to the drunk-driving death of another 17-year-old girl.
Local and state police agencies report dealing with parents who wrote permission slips allowing their high school children to drink alcohol at a classmate’s home. The permission slip was for the classmate’s parents.
That stunned investigator Chuck Cornelius of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
"It was surprise, yes, to see this practice was going on, and it’s been going on for some time," he said.
What’s more, Cornelius, who’s also a special liaison to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, said it’s not legal.
"No permission slips. It’s great evidentiary for a criminal trial," he said.
As it turns out, Jeffrey’s lawsuit could also lead to a criminal trial.
The 11 News I-Team asked Cornelius for his expert opinion on the case.
"There is a criminal angle I’m looking at now," he said, after viewing the document.
After all, providing alcohol to a minor is a crime, and Amber is dead. But Cornelius said he’s not just investigating the Spellings – he’s also investigating the other teens.
"All of them. The whole package," he said.
The case could have slipped through the cracks.
"Until 11 News provided me the petition from the court, I had no idea [Jeffrey’s case ] existed," Cornelius said.
A conviction of providing alcohol to a minor currently carries a potential punishment of up to a year in jail and/or a $4,000 fine, plus a driver’s license suspension.
TABC is now pushing to make social hosting a criminal offense with cities. It would be a Class C misdemeanor for criminal negligence.
That way, the owner could be held accountable for underage drinking on their property.
Unlike the current law, officers would not have to prove who provided the alcohol or if the parents were aware it was being consumed.
It’s controversial, but not unprecedented. Other states already have such a law.