Compulsive gambler suing casinos for $20 million

6:14 AM, Mar 9, 2008   |    comments
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She started out as an ambitious lawyer and TV commentator who got to know the staff in Atlantic City casinos, and soon limousines were whisking her to the resort for the high-roller treatment. Arelia Margarita Taveras says she was even allowed to bring her dog, Sasha, to the blackjack tables, sitting in her purse. But her gambling spun out of control: She said she would go days at a time at the tables, not eating or sleeping, brushing her teeth with disposable wipes so she didn't have to leave the table, and sometimes passing out. She says her total losses amounted to nearly $1 million. Now she's chasing the longest of long shots: a $20 million racketeering lawsuit against six Atlantic City casinos, and one in Las Vegas, claiming they had a duty to notice her compulsive gambling problem and cut her off. Experts say her case will be difficult to prove, but it provides an unusually detailed window into the life of a problem gambler. "It's like crack, only gambling is worse than crack because it's mental," said Taveras, 37, a Queens, N.Y. native who now lives in Minnesota. "It creeps up on you, the impulse. It's a sickness." She lost her law practice, her apartment, her parents' home, and still owes the IRS $58,000. She said she even considered swerving into oncoming traffic to kill herself. In interviews with The Associated Press, Taveras admitted she dipped into escrow accounts she maintained for clients to finance her gambling habit. She was disbarred last June, and faces criminal charges stemming from those actions, but is trying to work out restitution agreements in order to avoid a prison term. Her lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, names Resorts Atlantic City, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, the Tropicana Casino Resort, the Showboat Casino Hotel, Bally's Atlantic City, as well as the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The casinos deny any wrongdoing, claiming in court papers that Taveras brought her problems on herself. The casinos either declined comment for this story, or did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Last month, a judge dismissed the Trump casinos, the Tropicana, Showboat and Bally's from the lawsuit on technical grounds, but allowed Taveras to re-file the suit against them by April if she specifies in greater detail what she alleges they did wrong. It remains in effect against Resorts and MGM because of more specific allegations against them that were made in the suit. "They (the casinos) knew I was going for days without eating or sleeping," Taveras said. "I would pass out at the tables. They had a duty of care to me. Nobody in their right mind would gamble for four or five straight days without sleeping." Joe Corbo, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said casino workers undergo extensive training on how to spot problem gamblers and refer them to help, including a self-exclusion list the state maintains. Gamblers can voluntarily bar themselves from casinos, either for a few years or for life. While on the list, casinos cannot solicit them. Dan Heneghan, a spokesman for the state Casino Control Commission, said 663 people are on the list -- an all-time high. "This can be a delicate situation, and it comes down to an individual's personal responsibility," Corbo said. "We can only suggest that they receive assistance and provide information how they can obtain help, but it is up to them to commit to seek it." Paul O'Gara, an attorney specializing in Atlantic City gambling issues, said it will be difficult for Taveras to prove that the casinos knew she had a problem but ignored it. "How are you supposed to know whether this was a woman who was just having a good time, or had money and was just lonely, as opposed to someone who couldn't control themselves?" he said. Arnie Wexler, the former head of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, estimates there are 5 million problem gamblers in the United States, with another 15 million at risk of becoming compulsive. "Hers is not a rare case, believe me," said Wexler, who says he had a gambling problem. "This is the most powerful addiction you can have without putting something into your body. You remember your first big win, and you think, `Hey, I can do this again; I can get it all back." Lawsuits like this are not uncommon, Wexler and others said. He said they rarely succeed because courts -- and society -- seem to apply different standards to compulsive gambling than they do to other conduct. "We treat gambling differently in this country than we do alcoholism or drug abuse," he said. "We look at alcoholics and drug addicts as sick people. We look at compulsive gamblers as crooks." As a young lawyer, Taveras made a name for herself representing the families of victims of American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed in Queens in November 2001, killing 265 people. Her practice had 400 clients and earned her $500,000 a year. She appeared on TV and radio to discuss legal issues, wrote a guidebook for women dealing in the court system with deadbeat dads, titled "The Gangsta Girls' Guide To Child Support," and was a regular contributor to the Hispanic culture Web sites. In 2000, the New York Daily News named her one of "21 New Yorkers to Watch In The 21st Century." As an escape from the seven-day-a-week pressures of her law practice, she started going to Atlantic City to unwind in September 2003. While she said she also gambled at the other casinos listed in her lawsuit, she spent most of her time -- and money -- at Resorts, dropping $850,000 there in two years. By March 2005, a Resorts supervisor warned her to slow down, according to the lawsuit. She refused the advice, and declined to put her name on the self-exclusion list, denying she had a problem. During one five-day gambling jag there in June 2005, Taveras says, she existed on nothing but plastic cups of orange juice and Snickers bars that staff gave her. On the fifth day, she said a dealer told her to go home because she appeared exhausted and unable to keep track of the cards she was playing. A month later, according to her suit, Taveras was playing seven hands of Blackjack at a time so she could have the entire table to herself, and was losing $5,000 per hour. In a single weekend in September 2005, she says, she lost $150,000 gambling at Resorts. According to the suit, the casino asked her to sign a waiver of liability if she wanted to continue gambling there. She refused, and was barred from the premises. Taveras spent nearly a year in clinics to treat her gambling addiction. She filed her lawsuit last September, representing herself in court, and is now working at a telephone call center in Minnesota. Meanwhile, reminders of her problem continue to arrive in the mail. Harrah's sent her a letter in December barring her from all its properties; but a few weeks earlier, Trump Plaza sent her an invitation to spend New Year's Eve with them, promising her $50 to gamble with. "Everybody says, `You gambled and you enjoyed yourself, then lost your money and now you want it back,' " Taveras said. "They think gambling is fun. It isn't, believe me. Not when you get like I did."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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