Saturday, Jan. 31, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Las Vegas resident Jim Morrison happily paid thousands of dollars for a skybox at the Tao nightclub inside the Venetian, where he hosted his 32nd birthday party.
The professional poker player and his guests dropped hundreds of dollars more in tips to club employees throughout the night as they drank a steady supply of pricey booze.
When an inebriated Morrison refused to tip the club’s security guards, the guards became violent, Morrison claimed in a lawsuit.
A Clark County jury in November awarded Morrison about $80,000 in damages from Tao.
It is a rare judgment in an risk-prone industry that commonly settles disputes out of the public eye — providing a glimpse of the challenges Las Vegas nightclub operators face as they try to cultivate a party atmosphere in venues flowing with alcohol and cash.
Tao representatives declined to comment for this story.
Morrison, 34, said he was new to the nightclub scene at the time of his Tao visit, in June 2006.
He tipped the doorman and hostess $100 each because he was told by friends “that’s what you’re supposed to do.” He also paid a mandatory 20 percent gratuity included in the cost of the skybox to cover security, cocktail service, porters and the other employees who served the group.
Despite paying those tips, Morrison said, security staff aggressively sought tips from the group throughout the night.
According to Morrison’s lawsuit, he was walking two women back from the dance floor when the bouncer at his table asked for a tip for letting them into the skybox.
“He was extremely blatant,” Morrison said. “He said, ‘You’re not taking care of me.’ ”
The bouncer let the women enter the skybox after Morrison asked to speak with a manager. The bouncer cursed him, and Morrison responded with an epithet.
The encounter then turned violent, according to the lawsuit.
In a recent interview, Morrison said a bouncer grabbed him by the neck, he fell to the ground and someone else grabbed his legs. He was dragged down a flight of stairs and held on the floor in a back room, where a bouncer slapped his face with an open palm and someone else choked him, he said.
During the encounter, Morrison said, his wallet was taken, and when it was returned it was missing about $300.
“He ended up getting his tip,” Morrison said.
Venetian security arrived, handcuffed Morrison and led him through the casino to a holding room. During the trial, the jury watched security video showing a Venetian manager returning Morrison’s ID and saying it had been given to the manager by Tao.
Tao denied taking Morrison’s wallet or his money.
Morrison said he asked that police be summoned, but Venetian security resisted. On the tape, a security officer is heard telling Morrison to take his “licks and go home.”
Eventually a Metro Police officer arrived and is shown in the video telling Morrison he will arrest him if Morrison chooses to file a police report. “You’re the one in cuffs — you’re the criminal,” the officer said.
The officer eventually took a report without arresting Morrison.
The Venetian has banned Morrison from the property, a restriction the casino has also placed on mob figures, gambling cheats and other criminals. The casino, which leases space to Tao, was not named in the lawsuit.
Morrison said anger, not money, fueled his 2-1/2-year pursuit of the lawsuit. “I was being treated like I was the bad guy and I’d done nothing wrong. It drove me insane,” he said.
Tao refused to settle the case for about $38,000.
In the club’s version of events presented in court, Morrison was a drunken aggressor who initiated a fight with security. Tao’s attorneys displayed Morrison’s MySpace page, which proclaimed that he and his friends “do what we want when we want to do it.”
Morrison admits that he was happily intoxicated until angered by employees “with their hands out all night.” But he denies threatening anyone physically or touching the security staff.
Tao’s chief of security told the jury the club prohibits security guards from soliciting tips and that they would be disciplined if caught.
As with many clubs, security guards at Tao receive part of their earnings from unsolicited tips.
The discovery process revealed that one of the guards in question was admonished for a subsequent incident in which a customer was handled roughly.
Neither side produced independent witnesses to any violence involving Morrison, though the jury saw photos of abrasions on Morrison’s skin and bruises around his neck.
Tao attorneys claimed Morrison hurt himself in a fall and the bruising was from the chafing of his shirt collar.
Lawsuits — frivolous and genuine — come with the territory for large, successful nightclubs, where intoxicated customers can become aggressive, operators say.
Most lawsuits are settled out of court because of the potential for negative publicity for the club and the industry, insiders say. Losing a case could open the door to future lawsuits by combative patrons, they add. Settlements tend to be less than $50,000 or even a few thousand dollars, they say.
Last year, a lawsuit by a customer who claimed he had been beaten by bouncers at the Rumjungle nightclub because he refused to tip them to reenter the club ended in a confidential settlement. Rumjungle claimed Joshua Parks was denied entry to the club, at Mandalay Bay, because he was a belligerent drunk who attacked the security guards.
Overbearing security is also a concern at clubs, though some managers claim the problem is not pervasive. One manager, who declined to be named, said he once fired his entire security staff, who worked for a third-party company, for being rough with customers.
“In a big club, this kind of thing will happen. It’s a matter of how you handle it and how proactive you are,” the manager said.
Drunken or obnoxious customers are also par for the course, the manager said.
“I’ve been called every bad thing you can imagine. But you never have the right to put your hands on a customer unless you are defending yourself or trying to eject a person who won’t go and you’ve given him opportunities to leave on his own,” he said.
Training professional security guards is an ongoing concern for casinos and clubs in general, said Jeff Voyles, a gaming consultant and professor of casino management at UNLV. Turnover and training costs are high in security departments, said Voyles, who wasn’t involved in the Morrison case.
Some guards who are former police officers or soldiers can spell trouble if they momentarily forget they no longer have the authority to manhandle citizens, he said. Effective security guards can defuse a situation without using force, he added.
Morrison’s attorney, Robert Nersesian, has represented many gamblers in lawsuits accusing casinos of overbearing security methods. With the help of security videos, judgments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have changed the way many casinos handle unwanted customers, Nersesian said.
The suit hasn’t soured Morrison on Las Vegas or its epic nightlife.
Morrison, who moved to Las Vegas three years ago, has since purchased a VIP membership with Nine Group, which operates restaurants and clubs at the Palms casino. The membership entitles him to free alcohol at clubs and a table on “sold out” nights, among other perks.
“When I go to a club, I call someone I know who is a host there,” Morrison said. “I’d never go someplace where I don’t know anyone because they will treat you like a tourist, which means, as far as I can tell, separating you from your money as fast as possible.”