#2008-9 © Copyright 2008, all rights reserved worldwide. Gambling and the Law® is a registered trademark of Professor I Nelson Rose, www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com.
Stella Romanski couldn’t win a hand in a casino. But she hit the jackpot, thanks to a runaway jury and judges who think casinos have too much money.
Stella, 72, had paid $9.00 for bus rides and a lunch buffet at Detroit’s MotorCity casino. After playing and losing, Stella apparently decided to do a little “slot-walking,” looking in the trays for spare change. She found one nickel token.
Stella claims she was then accosted by uniformed officers, led to an interview room without windows, seated at a desk and informed that she had stolen a coin from the slot machine tray. They even took her nickel. The trial judge, Lawrence Zatkoff, bought her story. “Ms. Romanski began to cry at the thought that she, a grandmother of nine children, could commit a crime.”
Actually, the first and only security officer at the scene, Marlene Brown, testified she was in plainclothes, not in uniform. Stella, far from being the shy little elderly lady, was loud, hostile and “even belligerent,” so she was led off the floor.
The jury found there was no defamation and no intentional infliction of emotional distress. So this left only a civil rights claim and false arrest. Damages were thus limited to what happened to Stella from the time she was approached by Officer Brown to the time she left the interview room.
Since she never needed psychiatric care for this traumatic incident, the jury awarded Stella $9.00 for the bus trip and lunch, $270.00 for compensatory damages for being detained, five cents for the nickel token, and $850,000.00 in punitive damages.
Civil rights claims can only be brought against someone “acting under color of state law.” Some courts have held private security guards, and their deep-pocket employers, can be sued if they act like agents of a state. They have developed complicated “public function” tests, to see if the guard has the power of a government policeman. What has gotten lost is the reason for the tests. Private guards can be sued for state violations of civil rights only because the state has decided to delegate its police power to those private individuals.
Does anyone really think the security guards at casinos were acting for the state in this case?
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Officer Brown had “arrested” Stella. A real cop can make an arrest when there is “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed. But here there could be no crime, because the casino was wrong in thinking the nickel token was its property.
The Court ruled the slot token was abandoned property. Since the real owner could not be found, the law of finders-keepers kicks in. Stella, being the first person to find the abandoned token had a superior title over everyone else, including the owner of the place were the property was found.
The Court held that $850,000 was excessive, but $600,000 in punitive damages sounded right. It got that number by looking at cases where victims had been strip-searched, falsely convicted and even beaten to death.
It noted that Wal-Mart had been hit for $600,000 in a horrendous case of a pregnant woman falsely convicted and sent to jail, as if that were the same as Stella’s half-hour in the interview room.
This windfall all belongs to Stella and her lawyer. With a one-third contingency fee, he gets $200,000 and Stella walks away with $400,000.
Personally, I would put up with being questioned by security guards, even called a thief, for $400,000.
© Copyright 2008. Professor I Nelson Rose is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on gambling law and is a consultant and expert witness for players, governments and industry. His latest books, Internet Gaming Law and Gaming Law: Cases and Materials, are available through his website, www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com.