Gamblers sue over addiction

Ontario case among rising number faced by gaming industry


Only a few reported lawsuits against casinos by alleged addicted gamblers have reached U.S. courtrooms over the past two decades, but the number has been growing:


* 1980-1987: 0


* 1988-1994: 2


* 1995-1999: 2


* 2000-2001: 9


* 2002: 10


Source: American Gaming Association


WINDSOR — In his first gambling experience, Constantin Digalakis amassed more than $10,900 in winnings over two days at Casino Windsor, a Canadian gambling parlor only minutes from downtown Detroit. On the third day of his 1997 spree, however, he lost it all, plus an additional $6,400.


Five years later and after being diagnosed as a pathological gambler, Digalakis has turned to the legal system to recoup nearly $192,200 (all figures in U.S. dollars) in losses at government-owned Casino Windsor — which gets more than 80 percent of its business from the United States — and three other provincial properties.


In a lawsuit against the Ontario government, Digalakis, who describes himself as a top Canadian real estate professional, said he was courted with free meals, limousine rides and other enticements even after he signed up for a commonplace industry program in which casinos are supposed to turn away problem gamblers at the door.


The father of two seeks total damages of $2.6 million, claiming negligence, breach of contract and fiduciary duty.


“Defendants knew he couldn’t control his Togel Singapore gambling addiction,” according to the 29-page lawsuit. As a result, Casino Windsor, as well as Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls and Woodbine Racetrack near Toronto, had “fiduciary duties to ensure he didn’t gamble,” the suit adds. Casino Rama in Ontario also is named in the suit.


While Digalakis’ suit has been filed across the border, the U.S. casino industry has been slapped with a small but growing number of related lawsuits. Some wonder whether the industry, like the tobacco and fast-food arenas before it, is ripe for finger-pointing in the courts.



Can it happen here?



Casino Windsor, the second highest-grossing casino in the Metro Detroit region, concedes that Digalakis signed up for the exclusion program, asking that he be refused entry. But the casino said the onus is on the gambler to stay out. His losses are “the result of Digalakis’ own actions for which he alone is responsible,” Casino Windsor said in its response to the lawsuit that’s in litigation.


U.S. casinos fielded their first lawsuits by addicted gamblers in the late 1980s. From 1988-94, there were two cases in which gamblers used alleged addiction to fight collection efforts by casinos. Since then, about 20 alleged addicted gamblers have filed suits against commercial U.S. casinos, according to the American Gaming Association, or AGA.


Reasons for the increase: the march of commercial casinos into 11 states, the recognition of pathological gambling as a mental disorder, and a widespread change in societal norms.


“Forty years ago people wouldn’t sue, saying they were compulsive gamblers, but they wouldn’t be going on national television saying they were abused as children, either,” said I. Nelson Rose, a law professor and gambling law expert at Whittier College in California.


In Detroit, participation in keep-me-out programs rocketed from 56 takers in 2001 to an additional 201 gamblers this year, according to the Michigan Gaming Control Board.


Greektown Casino hasn’t been sued by problem gamblers; a MotorCity Casino spokesman said he’s unaware of any lawsuits. MGM Grand Detroit Casino referred calls to the AGA.


AGA CEO Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. discussed lawsuits by problem gamblers in a speech last September in San Diego to the International Association of Gaming Attorneys.


But Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Republican Party for six of Ronald Reagan’s eight White House years, said while lawsuits by individuals will be decided on a case-by-case basis, he doesn’t foresee the casino industry being plagued by class-action suits a la the tobacco or fast-food businesses.


For one thing, the casino industry has done more than the tobacco industry to address addictions through programs and research. Also, with only 1 percent of gamblers pathological, they burden state health systems less than do smokers and overweight people, Fahrenkopf said Friday.


“At this point, the vulnerability that existed for the tobacco industry doesn’t exist for the commercial casino industry,” Fahrenkopf said. “But I’m a trial lawyer by profession, and I know lawyers like to sue people so that doesn’t mean they won’t try.”



Going to the limit



After his three-day spree at Casino Windsor, Digalakis was hellbent on recouping his losses, frequenting that establishment as well as Casino Niagara and Casino Rama, where he was treated as an “important patron,” his lawsuit said. The player of $100 and $20 slot machines and roulette tables soon realized he was a compulsive gambler and signed up for Casino Rama’s self-exclusion program, which also would take effect at Casino Windsor and other Ontario casinos.


But he kept getting in. At one point, Digalakis officially asked in the late spring of 1997 to have his lifetime ban lifted. The casinos agreed to do so. Now, in his lawsuit, Digalakis claims that the casinos’ lifting of his ban amounts to a breach of the agreement because they knew he had a serious gambling problem.


He eventually filed for bankruptcy and convinced his wife to pledge property as security for a $150,000 credit line that he told her was for business purposes but that was later gambled away, according to the suit filed last year by Ricketts Harris. The Toronto law firm declined comment on the case.


Digalakis gambled at Casino Windsor through 1999 “despite the fact he signed forms similar to those he signed at Casino Rama and Casino Niagara whereby Casino Windsor agreed to exclude him,” his lawsuit said.