On a Tuesday morning five years ago, Stella Romanski set out to have lunch with her girlfriends. Now she’s in the U.S. Supreme Court defending a judgment in her favor of $600,779. And 5 cents.
There’s bound to be a moral for someone, somewhere, in this story. Judge Eric L. Clay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has spelled out the facts:
"On Aug. 7, 2001, Romanski, then 72 years old, and her friends Dorothy Dombrowski and Linda Holman, went to the MotorCity Casino in Detroit to gamble and enjoy the buffet. After a spate of unsuccessful tries at the slot machines, Romanski took a walk around the gaming floor. During her walk, she noticed a 5-cent token lying in a slot machine’s tray. Seeing no chair at the machine, she picked up the token and returned to the machine at which she had earlier played, intending to use the token there.
"Soon a uniformed male casino employee approached her and asked that she accompany him to the office. She asked why, but he did not answer. Romanski then noticed there were also three female casino employees, these not in uniform, surrounding her. She felt she could not move."
The plot, so to speak, swiftly thickened. One of the guards, Marlene Brown, displayed her casino badge and began to explain the casino’s policy on abandoned tokens. The policy is not posted anywhere, but the gist of it is that such "slot-walking" is forbidden. Patrons may not scoop up even a single overlooked nickel.
According to Brown, the more she tried to explain, the more Romanski became "loud and belligerent." One thing led to another. Finally Brown and three other guards gave the offended patron a kind of bum’s rush. In a windowless room off the floor, they accused her of stealing the nickel. Then, adding insult, they forcibly took a nickel away from Romanski; they photographed her, copied her Social Security card and driver’s license, and finally ordered her banned from the casino for six months. They never even let her eat lunch.
Romanski at last caught a bus home. Naturally, she sued under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code, i.e., she charged that Brown, as a rent-a-cop, had been acting under color of state law. The case wound up in U.S. District Court. There a jury returned (1) a judgment of $500 in punitive damages against Brown individually and (2) a nominal award of $279.05 in compensatory damages against the casino. (The extra nickel was just to rub it in.) Then the jury hit the casino with (3) another $875,000 in punitive damages.
The 6th Circuit Court, voting 2-1, cut the punitive damages to $600,000, but sustained the rest. Ms. Brown and the casino naturally want the judgment overturned.
Judge Clay, joined by Judge Damon Jerome Keith, made his indignation clear: The casino’s treatment of this little old lady was "inexplicable and egregious." Because Mrs. Romanski picked up an abandoned token, she was surrounded, arrested and led to a security office. There the guards stole her orphaned nickel. They refused to let her use a restroom by herself. They prevented her from having lunch with her friends. Finally they threw her out of the casino.
Judge Jerome Farris of the 9th Circuit, sitting by designation, dissented on a legal point. (He was not convinced the casino guards had detained Romanski under color of state law.) But he also took pains to denounce their "outrageous and abusive" performance. "The humiliating detention of Romanski was based solely on the enforcement of an inane casino policy."
My guess is that the high court will hold the casino’s petition until it hears argument this winter in Case No. 05-1256, Philip Morris USA v. Mayola Williams. The case stems from the death of Jesse Williams of lung cancer in 1997. The Oregon resident was a persistent smoker of Philip Morris cigarettes. A trial jury awarded his widow a stunning $821,000 in compensatory damages and $79.5 million in punitive damages.
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the cigarette company argues that the massive judgment exceeds some rough guide limits for punitive damages laid down by the court in 1996 and again in 2003. These guideposts mainly point to such factors as "degree of reprehensibility" and "the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages."
No such mind-boggling sums are at stake in the case of Stella Romanski, but the casino’s appeal presents important questions of personal injury law all the same. Whose nickel was it, anyhow? And who says so?