WKYT Investigates UPDATE | Lawsuit claims negligence, wrongful death in fatal Nicholas Co. crash

The lawsuit was filed against the alleged driver and a local bar.
The lawsuit was filed against the alleged driver and a local bar.
Published: Sep. 8, 2023 at 4:25 PM EDT
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CARLISLE, Ky. (WKYT) - A Nicholas County man was already intoxicated by the time he showed up at a local bar and had more to drink before being kicked off the property in the moments leading up to a fatal crash, a lawsuit claims.

An amended complaint filed Thursday in Nicholas Circuit Court names the bar and Cheyeene R. Clifford, 24, who is accused of driving the truck that crashed.

The crash happened late June 3 in the 4000-block of Myers Road (KY 32 East) outside of Carlisle, according to a police narrative. Gage Gaunce, 20, and Clay Welch, 17, died. Two other people inside the truck were airlifted to the hospital, investigators said.

A blood test after the crash found Clifford’s blood-alcohol content to be .14, his arrest citation states - nearly double the legal limit of .08.

Related coverage via WKYT Investigates:

A weeks-long WKYT investigation first uncovered facts about a previously-unreported traffic stop earlier that same night, raising questions about the potential red flags that were missed and what police knew and did not know when an officer pulled over Clifford’s truck less than two hours before the crash.

Then recordings of radio traffic obtained by WKYT Investigates further indicated that police were aware of multiple violations at the time of the traffic stop, but that the officer still let Clifford go with a verbal warning.

Now the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Welch’s estate and the two others seriously injured, provides more detail about a potential timeline of events that night and raises even more questions about whether the tragedy could have been prevented.

’Signs of extreme intoxication’

On Saturday, June 3, the three plaintiffs filing the lawsuit “spent the day socializing and consuming alcohol with [the defendant] Clifford,” the lawsuit claims.

“Later in the day,” it states, they rode with Clifford in his truck to the Gyp Joint, a bar located along the Licking River on Abners Mill Road near the Fleming County line - and just 3.5 miles from the site of the crash.

WKYT has chosen not to use on air the name of the bar, as it includes a slang term derived from an offensive name for an ethnic group.

“Clifford was already exhibiting signs of intoxication when he arrived” at the bar, the complaint states. It claims Clifford went inside while the plaintiffs stayed outside and “contacted a sober individual” to come pick them up from the parking lot.

Cheyeene Clifford, 24, was booked into the Bourbon County Detention Center on June 6 after...
Cheyeene Clifford, 24, was booked into the Bourbon County Detention Center on June 6 after being arrested the night before.(Bourbon Co. Detention Center)

The bar “served intoxicating beverages to Defendant Clifford when a reasonable person under the same or similar circumstances should have known that he was already intoxicated at the time of serving,” the complaint claims, before “Clifford was forcibly removed from [the bar] for exhibiting signs of extreme intoxication.”

The lawsuit alleges that the workers who removed Clifford from the bar followed him into the parking lot and “then threatened the Plaintiffs, telling [them] that they must immediately leave the premises...”

It claims those in the group “were forced...to leave the premises with” Clifford, despite his “exhibiting signs of intoxication such that he posed a danger to other persons,” and that workers “took no steps to prevent” him from causing injury when he took off driving in his truck.

“Shortly after leaving” the bar, the complaint states, “Defendant Clifford negligently and carelessly operated his truck causing it to leave the roadway and strike a tree.”

More questions raised

The claims listed in the lawsuit also raise further questions as to whether Clifford would have been intoxicated at the time he was pulled over by Carlisle police on that Saturday night.

The complaint does not list specific times, but does say that the plaintiffs and Clifford “spent the day socializing and consuming alcohol” together.

As WKYT Investigates previously reported, the group was pulled over at 9:49 p.m. at a gas station in Carlisle, dispatch logs show, in response to a reckless driving complaint.

“There’s people hanging out the windows of their truck and everything,” the 911 caller told dispatch. “They’re just being dumb, I guess. I don’t know if they’re drunk, or what’s going on with them.”

Questions about what exactly happened during the traffic stop still remain; Carlisle police officers do not wear body cameras that would show the officer’s interaction with the occupants of the vehicle and whether the driver showed signs of intoxication at the time.

But the radio traffic, obtained through an open records request, indicates that police were at least aware of two offenses when Clifford was pulled over and let go with a verbal warning less than two hours before the fatal crash.

“I did advise them to watch what they’re doing, be careful...” the officer can be heard telling dispatch in the audio recordings.

The officer then told dispatch that there was another traffic offense he also warned the vehicle occupants about, which they said they would fix. It is unclear to what that might have referred.

The traffic stop ended around 9:56 p.m., roughly 1 hour 43 minutes before the deadly crash that happened, as the lawsuit states, “[s]hortly after leaving The Gyp Joint.”

The initial civil complaint filed in late July specifically named Just One More, LLC and registered agent Tammy Lynn Gray as the owner of the bar. However, that LLC was dissolved in 2018, according to business records filed with the Secretary of State’s office. And in its answer to the complaint, the LLC stated that it has not operated the bar since it was leased in July 2016.

The bar’s licensing information with the Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control lists the current business owner as Melissa P. Shrout.

An amended complaint filed in court Thursday named Gray, Shrout and another individual (identified with Gray as a property owner) as defendants in addition to Clifford.

Shrout did not respond Friday to a request for comment.

The lawsuit claims the bar’s owner was aware of its employees’ “habitual over service of intoxicating beverages to their customers, rendering their customers a danger to other persons when they had reason to believe their customers would leave their premises and encounter other persons.”

An open records request WKYT’s Garrett Wymer filed in July with Kentucky ABC did not turn up any previous overserving complaints, citations or notices of violation for the bar at the time.

Documents did show owner Melissa Shrout was cited in August 2020 for “blatantly disregarding” COVID-related health standards such as physical distancing requirements, resulting in a $300 fine, records show, and a 100-day suspension of the bar’s alcoholic beverage license, according to the terms of an admission and settlement agreement.

In July of this year, ABC officials issued a warning notice to Shrout after an inspector found a half-empty bottle of vodka stored in a freezer, in violation of the bar’s malt beverage licenses.

The pending civil lawsuit claims multiple counts of negligence and gross negligence, as well as wrongful death, by the bar and by Clifford. It seeks punitive damages, calling the defendants’ conduct “malicious, willful, wanton, reckless and grossly negligent.” A motion hour is scheduled for September 18.

Additionally, Clifford was indicted June 19 on 11 criminal counts in connection with the crash. He is still being held in the Bourbon County Detention Center. A pre-trial conference in the case is scheduled for October 16 in Nicholas Circuit Court.