Keith Allen Brown shot a man to death in Priest Lake five years ago, leading to a 15-year prison sentence. But the 52-year-old says his problems started long before that, when he was just a boy and tasted alcohol for the first time.
Brown and four other inmates at Idaho’s Kuna facility are suing major beer companies, blaming their crimes on alcoholism and claiming that the companies are responsible because they don’t warn consumers that their products are addictive.
Reminiscent of lawsuits filed against major tobacco companies in the mid-1990s, the litigation targets many of the same companies named in a lawsuit filed last February by an Indian tribe in South Dakota. In that case, the Oglala Sioux accused beer companies and a nearby store of contributing to rampant alcoholism on the reservation by disregarding the tribe’s no-alcohol policy.
U.S. District Judge John Gerrard dismissed that lawsuit in October, saying it addresses state law, not federal issues. Gerrard didn’t rule on the allegations in the suit, noting that alcohol undoubtedly contributes to poor conditions on the reservation, and “it may well be that the defendants could or should do more to try and improve those conditions.”
Nebraska lawyer Tom White said the tribal council is to vote next month on whether to refile the lawsuit in state court. The legal arguments differ in the Idaho and tribal cases, but both lawsuits seek $500 million to make up for what they call the harmful effects of alcohol on consumers.
Though alcohol is regularly consumed by millions of people who don’t report health problems or become addicted, White said he believes beer companies engage in predatory marketing.
“I wish them good luck,” White said of Brown’s group.
The Idaho inmates do not have attorneys and drafted the lawsuit themselves. It names eight defendants, including Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller Brewing and the owner of Jim Beam whiskey, American Brands.
Brown and co-plaintiffs Jeremy Joseph Brown, Cory Alan Baugh, Woodrow John Grant and Steven Todd Thompson wrote affidavits explaining how alcohol has affected their lives.
Brown, who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Bonner County in 2010 after fleeing to Florida, said he’s spent nearly 30 years in prison.
“I have spent a great deal of that time in prison because of situations that have arose because of people being drunk, or because of situations in which alcohol played a major role,” Brown wrote. “At no time in my life, prior to me becoming an alcoholic, was I ever informed that alcohol was habit forming and addictive.”
That argument was the crux of class-action lawsuits against major tobacco companies in the 1990s, which led to stronger warning labels and restrictions on advertising for cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Jeremy Brown, 34, is serving a 20- to 30-year sentence for a 2001 shooting in Latah County that seriously injured a man. He said that he was drunk at the time and that if he’d not been an alcoholic, “the shooting would never happened.”
He said he never would have started drinking if he knew it was habit forming.
“I honestly do not think that anyone who is young and who is planning a future, if they knew that alcohol was addictive and habit-forming, would ever drink alcohol beverages,” Brown wrote. “Not one day goes by that I do not crave alcohol. I dream about drinking alcohol, I sit around and crave alcohol.”
Baugh, 34, is serving a 3- to 7-year sentence for grand theft and drug convictions in Ada and Benewah counties. Thompson, 44, has about three more years to serve for drug and grand theft convictions in Twin Falls County. Grant, 27, is serving 1 to 7 years for drug and aggravated battery convictions in Bannock County. Their stories are similar.
“I fear the day I am released from prison,” Grant said. “I do not know if I can be a productive member of society and still control the desires and craving to use alcohol.”
The Idaho men’s legal argument focuses on a marketing and consumer issue, said White, the lawyer who sued on behalf of the Oglala tribe. The tribal lawsuit focused on a regulatory issue, instead of a marketing or product liability one.
“It’s like if I’m selling you guns and I know you’re going to rob banks,” White said when explaining the tribe’s argument. “We’re saying that whatever this product is, the legislature and courts have set a series of laws and rules governing how it is sold and consumed.”
In Whiteclay, Neb., about 430 miles northwest of White’s law office in Omaha, the population is just 11. But beer sales in the tiny town surpassed 4 million cans last year.
The lawsuit attributes that to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located about a mile away across the South Dakota line. The sovereign reservation of about 4,000 people prohibits alcohol sales and bans its consumption. But alcoholism and its effects plague the reservation, where White said the average life expectancy is 40 to 50 years.
“They have the lowest life expectancy anywhere in the Western Hemisphere except for Haiti,” White said. “That statistics on what’s going on in Whiteclay and Pine Ridge are unbelievable, but they’re true.”
White said the Arrow Inn, the store that sells beer in Whiteclay, and the companies that deliver its supply “are aiding and abetting the breaking of that law.”
Alcohol companies’ representatives didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this article, but Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser, released a statement in response to New York Times coverage of the tribal lawsuit, saying the company obeys all laws and doesn’t sell directly to retailers such as the Arrow Inn.
“When our products become associated with a problem, it is damaging to all of us as parents and members of communities, and to us as a company; it’s the last thing we want for our consumers or our products,” according to the statement.
The companies have not responded to the inmates’ lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 10.
By Meghann M. Cuniff — Idaho Statesman