008: Ain’t Worth a Plugged Nickel

Stella Case No. 008, Originally Published: 2 October 2002

Estella Romanski of Troy, Mich., spotted a nickel in the tray of an unattended slot machine at the MotorCity Casino in Detroit. She picked up the coin and tried to play it, but a security guard stopped her — the rules of most casinos state that gamers can’t touch winnings that don’t belong to them unless they find them on the floor.

Parlay a nickel to a life-changing payout? A MotorCity come-on.

The security guard and the 73-year-old woman differ on what happened next, but Romanski claims she was “humiliated” by being asked to leave the casino over 5 cents and filed suit in Wayne County Circuit Court, asking for $100,000 for violations of her “civil rights.” A mediation panel recommended that the casino pay Romanski $17,009.05 (the nickel, plus the $9 Romanski paid for her bus ticket to the casino, plus $17,000 for “humiliation and aggravation”). But both sides rejected the settlement and the casino has successfully moved the case to federal court.

Romanski won: a federal jury awarded her $875,000. “We hope they fix things and stop using gestapo tactics,” one juror said, adding that some jurors thought the $875,000 wasn’t enough.

The casino is considering an appeal. It took 23 months to go from incident to the conclusion of the federal trial.

Sources

  • “Civil Rights Case in Federal Court: All Bets Are Off,” Detroit Free Press, 26 September 2002.
  • “Troy Woman Gets $875,000 in Casino Case,” Detroit Free Press, July 23, 2003.

Case Status

The casino appealed the award, which was $279 (and 5 cents!) in compensatory damages, and $875,000 in punitive damages. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan upheld the verdict, so Detroit Entertainment (Motor City’s owner) appealed to the next level, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. It ruled in October 2005 that “The remarkable facts of this case make it indisputable that a substantial punitive damages award is warranted. Defendants’ conduct was particularly egregious, and a higher award to deter the casino from sanctioning such conduct in the future was appropriate.” Despite that ringing endorsement, the court still reduced the punitive damages to $600,000.

Interestingly, under Michigan law casino security officer Marlene Brown had the power to arrest as if she were a sworn police officer. Part of the case hinged on her “unlawful arrest” of Romanski under both federal and state law.

In its decision, the judges wrote that Brown explained to Romanski “it was the casino’s policy not to permit patrons to pick up tokens, which appeared to be abandoned, found at other slot machines, a practice known as ‘slot-walking.’ [But] Romanski could not have known this at the time because the casino does not post the so-called policy anywhere. It is undisputed, therefore, that Romanski did not have — and could not have had — notice of the casino’s purported policy on slot-walking.”

With the Appeals Court ruling, the lower court (U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan (Southern Division)) levied the damages, plus $500 against Brown personally as punitive damages, as well as “$1,622.83, attorney fees in the amount of $62,000 up through September 12, 2003; attorney fees in the amount of $27,621.03 from September 13, 2003 until February 28, 2006; and interest awarded from the filing of the Complaint until February 28, 2006, in the amount of $137,156.78.”

Letters

Chris in Alaska: “I just received my first Stella awards issue. The Stellas cover something that I’m a little passionate about: the fact that these people can get away with such stuff is outrageous. So here’s my question: what can WE, the readers, do? Sometimes I want to storm right over to these people’s houses or places of business and knock some sense into them. Seriously, though, what tangible things can we do to fix this?”

Indeed that’s something I plan to explore over time. I’ve started to collect a few suggestions that have come in already. For instance, a “loser pays” rule: if you sue someone and lose, you have to pay the defendant’s legal expenses — and vice versa! But that’s not an ideal solution, since it effectively denies access to the legal system to those without money; people who have suffered real injuries (physical, financial, etc.) very often don’t have the cash to risk. This is obviously a very complex issue that’s not going to be “fixed” with a band-aid.

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

Seems both sides were pretty heavy-handed: the casino was way out of line, demanding identification, photographing Romanski, and kicking her out …over a nickel. But is that really a violation of her “civil rights”?

Following the previous suits that were about pennies, it’s amusing that this one followed directly, but coincidences happen …again!

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1 Comment on “008: Ain’t Worth a Plugged Nickel

  1. The “loser pays” has a major loophole, as evidenced by a case I was involved with in 1989.

    We sold a house in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. Documents we provided and the buyer signed (as per Calif law) stated that the house was on an earthquake fault line, and the resulting risk involved. A couple months later the Loma Prieta earthquake hit (the one that broke the Oakland Bay Bridge, and set much of downtown SF on fire). The house we sold was on Loma Prieta Ave — literally ground zero for the quake. The house was split in two by a major fissure, but was left standing.

    The buyer sued us for $15,000 for earthquake damage, which was his insurance deductible. They claimed that a termite repair of one joist on a porch step did not have enough nails, and that was why the house had so much damage. Obviously, we refused to pay, and it went to court. By Calif law, it was mandatory arbitration.

    The arbitrator was a retired judge (as most are in these cases). He decided that the joist in question could account for $50 in extra damage, and awarded the plaintiff $50.

    BUT THEN he said, because there was any award at all, that means that the plaintiff won the suit, and I was required to pay his lawyer fees… of, yes, you guessed it… $15,000 (the lawyer was his brother). I protested, saying that I should pay $100/$15,000 portion of his lawyer fees. The judge shut me down, said the case was decided and that there was no appeal possible in an arbitration case.

    Thus, the plaintiff was not punished for his frivolous lawsuit, and he got his entire insurance deductible paid by me, even though he signed a doc stating that he knew the risks of buying on an earthquake fault.

    Reply

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