Pennsylvania’s Wind Creek Bethlehem gaming property is getting sued by a then 84-year-old woman who was violently assaulted and kidnapped during a 2019 robbery. The litigation provides key lessons for other casinos, says a gaming law professor.
In the lawsuit, Jean Hartranft and her husband, Richard, allege Wind Creek was negligent during the attack. It should have stopped the robbery and assault with appropriate security and surveillance practices, they claim.
Instead, the casino later offered them a “free dinner as a proposed remedy,” according to Pennsylvania’s The Morning Call newspaper.
The assailant had watched the elderly woman win at slots. She cashed out a sum of money before he tailed her to the third floor of the casino’s parking garage.
Hartranft screamed as she was attacked. A Wind Creek employee heard the scream, according to a police report quoted by The Morning Call. But before security officers responded, the victim was forced to drive away from the garage.
The assailant was later identified as Hykeem Sessoms. He stole $7 from Hartranft’s purse.
He has pleaded guilty to the crime. Sessoms was sentenced to between 12 and 24 years in prison.
Over a year after the ordeal, Jean Hartranft continues to need counseling for the trauma. She now “lives in constant fear, rarely leaves her home and often has flashbacks of the attack,” the lawsuit states, The Morning Call reported.
Wind Creek did not comment on the litigation. Spokeswoman Julia Corwin did tell The Morning Call the casino “worked closely with local law enforcement” during the investigation.
The casino is owned and operated by Wind Creek Hospitality, which is operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The casino was formerly known as Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.
The lawsuit claims the casino and related entities were “subject to numerous violations and fines by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board for security lapses/violations including in the months leading up to” the incident, the newspaper said. The plaintiffs seek more than $50,000.
Advice from Gaming Attorney
When asked about the incident and litigation, Robert Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law, told Casino.org “casinos must provide appropriate security to protect their patrons.”
Otherwise, “casinos open themselves up to lawsuits by patrons who are injured or killed while on their premises. Even with insurance, such suits tend to be costly and time-consuming to defend.”
Negligence lawsuits can also lead to negative publicity, Jarvis advised. That can scare off customers. Also, competing gaming properties can lure away customers, Jarvis adds.
When it comes to appropriate security, an initial step for casinos is to have a “properly trained” security staff, Jarvis said. That includes learning how to deescalate incidents and knowing when to contact local police.
Also, security protocols need to be updated as conditions in and around the casino change, he said.
“Most importantly … all staff members — not just those on the security detail — need to be alert for intruders and other potential problems and act proactively and not just reactively,” Jarvis warned. “Keeping one’s eyes and ears open has to be a casino staff watchword.”
If the Bethlehem case proceeds to trial, Jarvis says there are likely questions that may be addressed in court to determine the casino’s liability. For instance, did attacks like this one occur previously?
If they did, what remedial efforts did the casino put in place to prevent them from reoccurring? Were the remedial efforts likely to be effective and were they reasonable and in good faith?
Before drawing conclusions about the case, Jarvis says there needs to be a “full airing of the facts.” He also points out that “ordinarily, a defendant is not liable for the criminal acts of a third party.
“But this rule can be overcome by showing that the defendant effectively enabled the third party’s criminal act,” Jarvis said. “Clearly, however, casinos should never rely on this rule, but should do everything reasonably possible to prevent/minimize harm to their patrons.”
Casino Settled in Las Vegas Negligence Lawsuit
Jarvis said the Bethlehem case resembles another one called Kawamura v. Boyd Gaming Corp.
In that case, a lawsuit was filed after a Las Vegas casino patron was badly beaten by a homeless man who had been using the casino’s restroom.
The patron and his wife sued. They alleged the casino had inadequate security.
Jarvis said the casino claimed the attack happened “so fast — ‘less than a minute’ — that it could not have been prevented. When the court rejects the casino’s motion for summary judgment, it settles.”
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