No one will ever know what Charles Neff, Diane Clark, and David Miller thought when they saw a black Infiniti Q45 speeding directly at their Ford Escape on that summer evening two years ago. Or, if they even saw the car at all. It likely all happened so fast. The force of the head-on collision on Louisville Street NE (state Route 153) catapulted the 2014 silver Escape into a soybean field, where it landed on its roof. Neff, Clark, Miller, and the drunken driver of the 2018 Infiniti, Kyle Dougherty, all perished. Four lives, gone in an instant.
Clearly, Dougherty caused the crash. His blood-alcohol level was at least 0.14, according to a Stark County sheriff’s report, or as much as 0.20, noted in a lawsuit—more than twice the legal limit. Dougherty’s Infiniti allegedly climbed to 142 mph, headed west on the two-lane country highway, veering off the road and crossing the center line before colliding with the eastbound Escape, just east of Maplegrove Avenue NE.
Stark County Sheriff George Maier was among those who responded to the scene of the 4:56 p.m. crash on July 15, 2021. Authorities remained at the site until after midnight. Dougherty had been drinking at a men’s member-guest golf outing at the Alliance Country Club earlier in the day. Is the 112-year-old country club responsible for the crash, too? If so, how much money does it owe to the families of those killed by Dougherty? Jurors in Stark County Common Pleas Court may eventually get to decide.
Attorneys for families of the three people in the Escape recently filed a lawsuit against the club. In it, they allege golfers partook in a veritable buffet of free alcohol at the daylong event. They contend the club over-served Dougherty, then in effect, set him loose on local roads.
“The force of the 142 miles per hour crash was so immense that the vehicles and individuals were barely discernible, with pieces and parts of the vehicles scattered throughout an adjoining farm field,” the suit stated.
The civil lawsuit, brought by four attorneys at Canton’s Plakas Mannos, remains in the early stages. It doesn’t include a specific amount of money sought from the country club. But attorney Lee Plakas provided a hint: “The issues of valuing the loss of human lives are always challenging because all of us hope to never have to make that determination,” he said in an emailed statement.
“That document, published in January by the U.S. Department of Transportation, indicates that prevention of a single-fatality auto crash can be valued at $13 million.
Each of the three families was already awarded $100,000 wrongful death insurance settlements against Dougherty, approved in Stark County Probate Court. But those proceedings didn’t involve the country club. The suit against the club was filed in July.
The club on East Milton Street was founded in 1911. It is represented by Middleburg Heights attorney William Kotar. He declined comment for this story, due to the pending lawsuit.
The suit alleges the club organized the July 15, 2021, golf outing “to facilitate and/or encourage the consumption of large amounts of alcohol and unreasonable or reckless conduct.” And that “history and tradition” was an indicator some would get drunk, but the club did not monitor, control, or prevent potential risk to others. It accuses the club of allowing young and inexperienced seasonal workers to serve the alcohol, not arranging transportation for those who’d be driving drunk, and ignoring the fact that Dougherty was visibly intoxicated before he left the event.
Families of all four killed declined comment for this story. The 66-year-old Neff drove the Escape. He lived with Clark on North Nickelplate Street, about three miles from the crash site. A father of four, he was described as her “significant other,” in his obituary. Clark, 65, who sat in the front passenger seat, was a mother of three. A self-employed CPA and partner in Louisville’s Uptown Joe Coffee Shop, she was the sister of Miller, the other passenger in the Escape.
The 71-year-old Miller, also a friend of Neff’s, was a retired postal employee and Army veteran of the Vietnam War. His obituary mentioned three siblings among his survivors.
Last year, all three were remembered during a Stark County sheriff’s Safe Communities Coalition memorial event. Their families wrote statements for the service at the Nimishillen Township fire station.
“Dad, Diane and Dave did not deserve to have their lives end in a bean field, injured so horribly, without their kids and grandkids by their sides to be able to say goodbye,” the Neff family wrote.
Clark’s granddaughter, Sadie Sinchak, wrote this: “That day I did not lose one, but three valuable, close, and important family members in a car crash involving a drunk driver. I will forever remember the complete shock I felt that night.”
The 35-year-old Dougherty was a 2004 Louisville High graduate. He left behind his sister and his parents. “He touched so many lives with his infectious smile and loving heart, so continue to smile today and every day in memory of Kyle,” his obituary read.
However, it wasn’t the first time Dougherty had driven, or got into trouble, while drunk. Local police and court records show drunken driving convictions in 2004 and 2014. The suit noted a third conviction in 2007 and mentioned a slew of speeding tickets and a 2019 criminal trespass case, which records indicate occurred while he was drunk. In that case, Dougherty entered the Plain Township home of a stranger “while highly intoxicated,” and refused to leave. Coincidentally, or not, that home happened to have the same numerical address — 3767 — as Dougherty’s home in Louisville, nine miles away.
The tragedy on Louisville Street serves as a heartbreaking reminder of the devastating consequences of drunk driving. It highlights the importance of holding individuals accountable for their actions while also raising questions about the role of establishments that serve alcohol. As the lawsuit against the Alliance Country Club progresses, it will likely shed light on the responsibilities of such establishments in preventing alcohol-related tragedies on our roads. One thing remains certain: the pain and loss experienced by the families of Charles Neff, Diane Clark, David Miller, and Kyle Dougherty will never truly heal.