West Virginia: Lawsuit against Mountaineer dismissed
Lawsuit against Mountaineer dismissed
AUG 21, 2016
WHEELING — A judge has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit that touched on the question of whether casinos and slot machine manufacturers have a responsibility to prevent compulsive gambling by patrons.
The lawsuit against Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort, filed by the widow of Scott Stevens in 2014, claimed the Hancock County casino had a duty to intervene in the compulsive gambling habits that allegedly drove him to suicide in August 2012.
U.S. District Court Judge Frederick P. Stamp Jr.’s order of dismissal came nearly four years to the date after Stevens fatally shot himself in a Jefferson County park — and a day after Stacy Stevens voluntarily withdrew her case.
Her attorney, James G. Bordas Jr. of Wheeling, could not be reached for comment. Mountaineer routinely does not comment on litigation.
The lawsuit claimed that, from 2007 to the day he died, Stevens was a regular patron at Mountaineer, where he played the slot machines and, over time, became hopelessly addicted to gambling.
To support his habit, he embezzled more than $7 million from his workplace, where he was chief financial officer, and emptied his family’s savings, retirement account and his children’s college funds, the lawsuit said.
Even after an IRS audit discovered the embezzlement and Stevens was fired, he continued playing the slot machines at Mountaineer for 10 more months, never telling his wife about his secret life as he dragged his family deeper into debt, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also named as a defendant Reno, Nev.-based slot machine manufacturer International Game Technology Inc. and former Mountaineer parent company, MTR Gaming Group. Its main allegation was that the IGT slot machines used at Mountaineer are“inherently dangerous” and are designed to keep people playing to the point where they can’t stop.
“The products were not a passive medium through which gamblers enacted a pre-existing addiction but, rather, an interactive force that eroded players’ capacity to make reasoned decisions,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also accused IGT of intentionally concealing from patrons algorithms and other design features that govern slot machines’ win-loss functions — features that have been written about in books such as “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas” by MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull.
“No other form of gambling is known to manipulate the human mind as much as slot machines,” the lawsuit said. “Playing these machines produces in numerous gamblers a trance-like state in which their ability to make rational decisions is eroded. Players become addicted to a dissociated mental state of diminished self-awareness and the suspension of a sense of time, money value and one’s immediate surroundings.”
Ultimately, the lawsuit stalled on the question of whether casinos and slot machine suppliers have a “duty of care” to protect patrons from compulsive gambling.
Stamp put the question to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, in order to address motions filed by the defendants to dismiss the case. Justice Brent D. Benjamin, who wrote the opinion, concluded that no duty of care exists under West Virginia law and, therefore, a lawsuit claiming negligence could not be sustained.
Benjamin cited similar cases in Indiana and New Jersey in which courts found that the state’s prerogative in regulating the gaming industry superseded any responsibility on the part of casinos and vendors.
In the case of West Virginia, racetrack casinos such as Mountaineer are already heavily regulated by the West Virginia Lottery Commission, operating under strict rules set by the state Legislature.
“The hardware and software components of the (slot) machines are required to precisely comport with statutory parameters, and ‘each video lottery terminal approved for placement at a licensed racetrack must conform to the exact specifications of the video lottery terminal prototype tested and approved by the commission,'” Benjamin said, citing the West Virginia Code.
What’s more, Benjamin said the state sets aside $150,000-$500,000 annually for its Compulsive Gambling Treatment Fund and maintains an exclusion list whereby patrons with a compulsive gambling disorder can be prevented, either voluntarily or involuntarily, from entering casino premises.
Because legal gambling is so entwined with the state, the duty of care rests with the Legislature not the private sector, Benjamin concluded.
“State law regulates virtually every facet of casino gambling and its potential impact upon the public,” he said. “The state has so thoroughly integrated itself into the provision and operation of the (slot) machines on every level … that its involvement cannot readily be divorced from that of its licensees and key suppliers.”
Stamp said the supreme court’s ruling was “dispositive,”meaning it settled the issue.