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Hitting the jackpot took on new meaning in a Detroit federal courtroom where a 74-year-old woman battled a casino over a nickel and won $875,000. In the summer of 2001, Estella Romanski, a resident of Troy, Mich., took a chartered bus with other seniors to try their luck in the MotorCity Casino, in nearby Detroit. Romanski had a little luck at first. She found an abandoned nickel credit at a deserted slot machine, she said. But she never got to play it. Romanski, a retired Arthur Murray dance teacher, said that she was suddenly surrounded by casino security officers. She was then questioned, photographed, held against her will and finally tossed out of the casino, she alleged. Adding insult to injury, the officers first stripped her of her $9 meal ticket, she claimed. Neil H. Fink of the Law Offices of Neil H. Fink in Birmingham, Mich., took her case to state court under theories of civil rights violations, false arrest, false imprisonment, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Romanski v. Detroit Entertainment, No. 02-CV-73358. The casino, represented by Robert F. MacAlpine of Detroit’s Garan Lucow Miller, removed the case to federal court because the plaintiff had alleged a federal civil rights violation under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Casinos nationwide frown on “slot walking,” the art of finding abandoned credit on slot machines or tokens in the hopper that haven’t been played. This is to make sure “that proper taxes are paid, and to preserve order in the casino,” said Jack Barthwell, MotorCity’s public relations director. “Because it’s not your money, you’re taking something that doesn’t belong to you,” Barthwell said. “We believe it’s owned by the person who bet it or by the casino.” Not so, according to Fink, who said the jury was instructed that under Michigan law the finder of lost or abandoned property has superior title to it than the owner of the locality where the property is found. The casino’s conduct was “outrageous,” Fink charged. “Romanski committed no crime.” The casino’s policy was not written, he said. “It was a secret policy.” An eight-person jury reached unanimous verdicts for Romanski on her civil rights, false imprisonment and false arrest claims, awarding her $270 — and 5 cents — in general damages and $875,000 in punitive damages. That’s about one day’s profit for the casino, Fink said. The jury found for the defendant on the plaintiff’s other claims. The defense counsel could not be reached for comment. Barthwell said the casino will appeal, but may first ask the court to reduce damages.

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