James J. Kilpatrick

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?

(Letters to Mr. Kilpatrick should be sent in care of this newspaper, or by e-mail to kilpatjj@aol.com.)


James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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