Friday, July 31, 2009 | 10:13 a.m.
CARSON CITY – The Nevada Supreme Court has nullified a $150,000 punitive damage award against the Imperial Palace because of “egregious” misconduct by a Las Vegas lawyer during trial.
The court did, however, uphold a $99,000 judgment against the casino in favor of James Grosjean who said he was illegally held by security guards of the resort.
Grosjean was detained by casino security and two agents of the state Gaming Control Board because he matched the description of a person in whom a third gaming agent was interested. He was handcuffed, searched and detained by casino personnel.
When it was determined Grosjean was not the person being sought, the casino security still held him for an additional time, according to the suit.
Grosjean complained this was part of conspiracy to exclude professional gamblers from gambling at the casino.
The search turned up a large sum of money, chips from various casinos and two sets of identification, one of them false. Grosjean was also wearing two pairs of pants.
The court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Michael Douglas, said the jury in the punitive damages hearing appeared swayed by the improper behavior of attorney Robert Nersesian rather than the evidence. He represented Grosjean.
The court in its 33-page opinion ordered a new trial on the punitive damage phase of the suit.
The court said the testimony and evidence during the five day trial “reasonably could support the verdict rendered here” in awarding $99,000 to Grosjean. He was held for 45 minutes during which no physical injury occurred. The jury also awarded Grosjean $9 against Donnie Espensen, a casino security official.
But in overturning the punitive damage award, the court said Nersesian wrongly asked the jury to punish the Imperial Palace for not making substantial charitable contributions despite being a highly profitable corporation. He said the casino gave $3,026 to charity despite making $7 million.
The court said Nersesian violated the so-called “golden rule” by asking jurors to place themselves in the position of Grosjean. And the Imperial Palace claimed Nersesian cried and brought his personal feelings into the case during his presentation.
The court said professional conduct standards prohibit an attorney from expressing personal opinions regarding the justness of a cause.
Douglas said “this misconduct in this matter is so egregious as to warrant a new trial on punitive damages.”
The Supreme Court rejected the argument of the Imperial Palace that they were shielded from suit because they were acting on the instructions of the state gaming agents. The court ruled that District Judge Lee A. Gates was correct in holding that the casino was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The jury at first came back with a $500,000 punitive judgment award against the Imperial Palace. The judge reduced it to $150,000. And that issue will now go to trial again.