03/07/2003 1:00AM

Lawsuits against casinos persist


One issue that the gaming industry will always have to deal with is problem gamblers.

To go out gambling, like drinking or smoking, is a voluntary act. To a small segment of the population, however, this act can become addictive.

From time to time, a gambler who has lost everything has filed a lawsuit against a gaming company. A typical case is this: John Doe citizen becomes a compulsive gambler, loses his life savings, and sues the big, rich casino company.

The gaming industry has won dozens of lawsuits like this, but that does not slow the filing of such cases.

Last year, David Williams filed suit in Indiana against the Aztar Corp. Aztar owns the Tropicana casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and in Indiana. Williams, 52, was an unemployed auditor for the Indiana Department of Revenue. He lost an estimated $175,000 and his home, and he had to file for bankruptcy.

The Williams case was slightly different from others filed in the past. Williams claimed that Aztar was aware of his addiction. Aztar, he said, had first banned him from the Tropicana riverboat, but then lured him back.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge John Tinder ruled in favor of the Aztar Corp. Aztar was dismissed from all claims in the federal lawsuit. This was a major win not just for Aztar, but also for the gaming industry. At some point, all gaming companies stand to be involved in a similar filing.

Judge Tinder wrote in his ruling, "Despite his counsel's creative efforts and regardless of Williams's sympathetic plight, neither federal nor Indiana law provides him any refuge or reward."

Tinder said he would have ruled in favor of Aztar whether Williams's case was viewed as a claim for just compensation or "an effort to hit the jackpot in litigation that he couldn't achieve on the riverboat casino."

Williams's attorney, Terry Noffsinger, gave this warning: "The problem of pathological gambling is still here. What the courts will do about it and what the [casino] companies will do to address it is still up in the air."

Rev. Tom Grey, an anti-gambling activist, said in a Las Vegas Review-Journal interview last September that "casino companies are on the horns of a dilemma. Because government has given them a seal of approval, they want to be treated with respect. . . . But the more they've expanded, the more problems are created, and the clearer it becomes they are not like another business."

Rob Hunter, founder of Problem Gambling Consultants here in Las Vegas, believes that in the future, problem gambling will be treated as a medical condition, as drug and alcohol addiction are.

The most salient point that Judge Tinder hinted at is that at some point an individual in our society must take full responsibility for his or her own actions. Now that sounds like a novel idea.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.