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Transfer sought in compulsive gambling case

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Arguing that common law should protect anyone intentionally harmed by someone else, an Evansville attorney is asking the Indiana Supreme Court to consider a case of first impression in which he contends a compulsive gambler was targeted and taken advantage of by a casino, resulting in her loss of $125,000 in a single night.

"Harming another. Intentionally. Blessed by the government. Can this be true?" attorney Terry Noffsinger writes at the start of his 14-page transfer petition in Caesars Riverboat Casino v. Genevieve M. Kephart, No. 31A01-0711-CV-530, which was filed Thursday before the state's highest court.

An Indiana Court of Appeals panel decided the case in March and later denied a rehearing request in May. The appellate judges determined that casinos don't have a common law duty to protect compulsive gamblers from themselves and aren't required to refrain from trying to entice those people into their establishments. That decision reversed a ruling from Harrison Circuit Judge H. Lloyd Whitis, who'd denied Caesars' motion and appeals to dismiss the counter-claim based on its legal sufficiency. Judges Paul Mathias and Carr Darden made up the majority, while Judge Terry Crone dissented.

The case dates to March 2006, when the Tennessee woman alleged she was enticed by the Indiana riverboat casino with a free hotel room, drinks, and meals, and ultimately allowed to borrow $125,000 from the casino in a single night. Kephart's six counter checks were returned for insufficient funds, and Caesars later sued to recover that money and treble damages. But Kephart filed a private negligence counter-claim that alleged Caesars took advantage of her condition as a pathological gambler, that it shouldn't have offered her the enticements in the first place, and was responsible for damaging her quality of life in order to unjustly enrich itself.

The majority analogized this situation to that of a compulsive shopper, noting that department stores have no common law duty to refuse sales or services to someone known to be a compulsive shopper. Judges also found that marketing to potential patrons isn't reckless and that Kephart's own behavior and foreknowledge of possible risks in going to the casino to gamble tipped the balance in the casino's favor.

But Judge Crone disagreed, writing in his own opinion that a common law duty should be imposed because of the casino's conduct in luring her to the casino with freebies. As it likely knew about her condition, the casino could have easily excluded Kephart from any direct marketing efforts and from the casino itself because of a statutory voluntary-exclusion program described in Indiana Code Section 4-35-4-2, the judge determined. But the casino didn't do those things.

In his transfer request, Noffsinger points to Judge Crone's rationale as a basis for why the justices should accept the case. He also notes this case presents a novel issue of great public importance and that the appellate panel has created an unconstitutional immunity that violates both state and federal constitutions.

"In its opinion, the majority opined that because the legislature had legalized casino gambling, and the Indiana Gaming Commission had promulgated certain rules ... that required casinos to 'cease all direct marketing attempts' to a person participating in the self-exclusion program, it had provided certain protections," Noffsinger wrote, pointing out this holding puts the burden on victims who suffer from psychological issues outside their control. "Legalized gambling, and other problems it brings with it, are not the issues in this case. What must be remembered is that granting transfer and reversing the (COA's) opinion does not give Kephart a 'win.' She must yet prove the allegations in her counterclaim .... What she is asking for is her day in court to present her case."

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