Monday, Aug. 3, 1998 | 2:50 a.m.
The Taco Cabana restaurant at Sahara Avenue and Decatur Boulevard was crowded as usual in March 1993 when decorative beams that gave the ceiling a traditional and trendy flair suddenly collapsed.
It shattered the peace of the mealtime and broke Carolynn Tobin's back in two places. Diners fled in panic and the incident was recounted on newpaper front pages and on television broadcasts.
Now, more than five years later, the lawsuits that followed the debacle finally will be going to trial today in District Judge Jack Lehman's courtroom.
But the Texas company that installed the beams -- Val Mar Construction -- won't be there. It settled claims against it on Friday for the $1 million limit of its liability insurance policy. Three other firms and individuals also settled their portions of the lawsuits, although for relatively minor amounts.
Still in the case, however, are Taco Cabana's parent company -- Red Line Taco Four -- the city of Las Vegas, Perkins General Contractors and Marlin Construction.
Despite Val Mar's settlement, the litigants are seeking millions more for the injuries they and their families suffered.
Taco Cabana Inc., the San Antonio-based purveyor of fajitas, quesadillas and other "Tex-Mex" cuisine, is the primary "deep pocket" target, although the chain has suffered severe financial setbacks in recent years and the Las Vegas restaurants have been closed.
Towbin, the wife of Tobin Infiniti owner Daniel Towbin, was described by her attorney at the time, Dominic Gentile, as "the single most injured person" from the collapse of the beams on dozens of patrons. The Towbins were in the restaurant with their daughter and son at the time of the accident.
When the lawsuit was filed in 1993, Gentile said he wanted to draw attention to what he called "dangerous situations," because decorative work has been exempt from city and county building inspections.
In all, 14 people were injured. Authorities said the cause was short nails used by an unlicensed Texas company.
Most injuries were minor, but Carolynn Towbin had to undergo two surgeries for the crushed vertebrae she suffered.
A companion lawsuit, filed by attorney James Crockett on behalf of five adults and four children, claims the ceiling caved in "due to neglect and a reckless selection of wholly inappropriate materials and fastening system," the legal action charged.
An investigation after the incident at 2401 S. Decatur Blvd. revealed the decorative beams were fastened with nails that appeared to be too short.
That lawsuit, which seeks unspecified general and punitive damages, was filed on behalf of Clifford Fortgang and his children, Linda and Melanie; Coleen Koetje and her children, Adam, Darcie and Erin; and Daniel and Jo-Anne Kristensen.
The action charges that Taco Cabana "hired unlicensed and unqualified persons to integrate impermissible and unlawful designs and construction methods."