Crime

August 26, 2014

Supreme Court to hear Rockaways’ appeal of gambling losses case

Rockaways restaurant and bar will get another chance to win a gambling-related lawsuit that could cost it a bundle.

Rockaways restaurant and bar will get another chance to win a gambling-related lawsuit that could cost it a bundle.

The S.C. Supreme Court has said it will hear Rockaways’ appeal from a case it lost in 2013 in the S.C. Court of Appeals.

In that case, the Court of Appeals ruled a Columbia woman who claimed nearly $700,000 in alleged losses from playing illegal video poker machines at popular Columbia eateries Pizza Man and Rockaways can go ahead with a lawsuit she brought against the eateries to recover her losses.

Under a state law, a gambler can sue a gambling establishment to recover losses. The law does not address losses claimed from illegal machines, such as those Lauren Proctor played at those businesses.

The Supreme Court issued its decision to take up the case, in which admitted compulsive gambler Proctor seeks to recover video poker losses, in a one-page order. It did not set a date for a hearing.

Earlier, in a brief to the Supreme Court urging it take up the matter, Rockaways lawyer Jim Griffin of Columbia argued that the Court of Appeals decision against Rockaways “creates new law opening the civil judicial system to a flood lawsuits by disgruntled criminals suing other criminals for business disputes.”

Moreover, wrote Griffin, Proctor brought her lawsuit more than three months – the time set in a statute of limitations – after suffering her alleged losses at Rockaways. Thus, she is ineligible to bring the lawsuit.

In a reply brief to Griffin’s aimed at letting the Court of Appeals decision be the final word, Proctor’s lawyer, Pete Strom of Columbia, wrote that state law clearly supports “a policy of allowing plaintiffs to recover gambling losses as a way of both discouraging illegal gambling and protecting gamblers and their family members from imprudent gambling activities.”

In an interview, Griffin said he hopes the Supreme Court will rule that the Court of Appeals “was in error.”

Strom said, “We look forward to arguing this. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will make a definitive statement.”

The case revolves around Proctor’s weekly visits to Rockaways Athletic Club and Pizza Man from 1999 to 2005, where she lost between $1,000 and $5,000 each week, according to the Court of Appeals decision. The two establishments provided her with cash advances to fund her gambling as well as free food and liquor, the decision says.

After the year 2000, when video poker machines became illegal in South Carolina, Proctor kept using the machines at the eateries and losing money.

During the time she was gambling and losing, she began to embezzle money from State Title, a company her mother owned that provided real estate closing services to attorney Walter Smith.

After the FBI learned about her embezzling, Proctor – in an effort to get a lighter sentence – agreed to help the Bureau get evidence about the video poker machines by wearing a hidden wire and video and audio surveillance equipment on her visits to Rockaways and Pizza Man, both near the intersection of Rosewood Drive and Woodrow Street in Columbia.

All told, she compiled 20 hours of secret audio and video at the two eateries – evidence that was crucial in allowing the FBI to seize gambling machines and arrest Forrest Whitlark, one of the owners, according to federal records in Proctor’s case.

Federal agents raided the businesses in October 2005. Whitlark, who was charged with operating an illegal gambling business, was admitted into a pretrial intervention program and did not serve time.

Because of her assistance to the FBI, Proctor only got a one-year sentence for mail fraud in connection with her embezzlement. She also agreed to pay restitution of $689,000 to those from whom she embezzled money, according to federal records.

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