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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Balancing Safety and the Bottom Line in Nevada

June 07, 1995|ROBIN ABCARIAN

CARSON CITY, Nev. — What you have to understand, the hotel and casino lobbyist was saying, is that 65% of Nevada revenues come from the gaming and hotel industry. Because of that, he said, hotels have "special status" in the state, a "unique relationship" with government.

That simple fact would become abundantly clear on Friday, as the Nevada State Senate voted in favor of a bill that would make it much, much harder--some might even say impossible--for guests to win damages from hotels in negligent security cases.

Why should you care?

If you are one of the millions of tourists who use hotels in Las Vegas or Laughlin or Reno or Lake Tahoe, if you are among those paying guests who are the very reason the hotel business is such a force in the Nevada economy, then you should know that if this bill becomes law, hotels and casinos (described by Nevada's own Supreme Court in 1993 as "a fertile environment for criminal conduct") will have less incentive than ever to make sure your stay is safe.

If Senate Bill 474 passes, a hotel would no longer be liable for punitive damages for the wrongful acts of its employees unless a guest could prove that a top officer of the company expressly authorized the employee's behavior. (To win a case, I guess a plaintiff would have to produce a smoking memo: To Valet Parking staff: You may rob our guests at gunpoint only between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.)

A hotel guest injured by a non-employee--let's say a female Navy officer who has been assaulted by rows of drunken male aviators--would be allowed to sue for damages only if she could prove that such a thing had already happened at least twice before at the hotel, and that the hotel knew of the previous assaults. (Memo to our security staff: If you become aware of an assault on a guest, please do not tell us about it, for reporting could expose us to future liability.)

In a thundering oratory, Sen. Joe Neal, a veteran Democrat from North Las Vegas, accused his colleagues who supported the bill of nesting cozily in the pockets of casino owners.

"This bill is wrong and says to the nation that we are not in control up here. . . . It says any time a hotel has a problem, come to the legislature and we will fix it. Ladies and gentlemen, that is corruption! "

The young Republican senator who chairs the committee that produced the bill duly noted his hurt feelings.

"When you stand and say corruption , you should think long and hard," sniffed Sen. Mark James. "The integrity of every member has been called into question. And that is sad. Really sad."

On a "sincerity" scale of 1 to 10, 10 being Eddie Haskell, I give the man a 15.

*

Sitting in the gallery, watching the debate with her attorneys was former Navy flier Paula Coughlin, perhaps Nevada's most famous victim of negligent hotel security. It was she who lifted the lid on the 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention at the Las Vegas Hilton, she who brought the scandal to light.

After drunken aviators sexually assaulted her in the infamous third floor gantlet, Coughlin sued the Hilton Hotel Corp. and the Las Vegas Hilton for failing to provide adequate security. Last year, a jury awarded her $1.7 million, and another $5 million in punitive damages after finding the Hilton guilty of negligence, as well as "malicious" and "oppressive" conduct by denying her right to safety. (A judge reduced the award to $5.2 million.) Hilton has appealed.

Coughlin, 33, flew in from her home in Virginia Beach, Va., to lobby against the bill, even though, clearly, it was already a done deal in the Senate.

After spending the weekend in San Diego with her attorneys, Coughlin was back in Carson City on Monday and Tuesday. She hoped to convince members of the Nevada Assembly's Judiciary Committee, slated to take up the bill this Saturday, that the bill is nothing more than special interest legislation, and that one of its clauses is aimed at extinguishing the verdict in her case. That clause--a retroactivity provision--would apply the new law to any cases already decided by juries but still on appeal.

Coughlin's case "never entered my mind," protested James on the Senate floor.

As for the hotel and casino lobbyist, this is what he said, straight to my face: "It is not retroactive. Why does everyone insist on calling it retroactive?"

OK, fine: It's not a retroactive clause--it just applies to cases that juries have already decided. I'm starting to think of it as a magical clause, a clause built of smoke and mirrors, a clause that is the stuff of Vegas floor shows:

Now you see the multimillion dollar verdict.

Poof!

Now you don't.

*

One other senator--Bob Coffin, Democrat from Las Vegas--voted against the bill. Coffin also offered an amendment to remove the retroactivity clause.

It lost on a voice vote.

Coffin later said Coughlin's lobbying may not get the bill killed in the Assembly, but she may convince legislators that the retroactive clause is patently unfair.

"They have a hard time shooting someone between the eyes when the person is looking right at them," Coffin said.

Although going public with the assault has cost Coughlin her job, her career, her anonymity and her peace of mind (she still hears comments such as "There's the bitch who ruined the Navy" at her local grocery store), she will not give up.

"The appeal continues," she said. "The battle goes on."

Indeed it does.

Hilton, with assets of a billion dollars, can afford to keep fighting.

And, certainly, it will.

In the meantime, I would never suggest that you stay away from any of the lovely and exciting tourist attractions offered by our neighbor, Nevada, which is so successfully repositioning Sin City as a family friendly resort.

I'm just saying that if this bill becomes law, when you go there, you might want to think about staying with friends.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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