Paula Coughlin v. the Las Vegas Hilton: 1994

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Paula Coughlin v. the Las Vegas Hilton:

Defendant: Paula Coughlin
Plaintiff: The Las Vegas Hilton
Plaintiff Claim: That the Las Vegas Hilton failed to provide adequate security during the 1991 Tailhook convention
Chief Defense Lawyer: Eugene Walt
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Dennis Schoville
Judge: Philip M. Pro
Place: Las Vegas, Nevada
Date of Trial: September 12-October 28, 1994
Verdict: Against the defendant, awarding the plaintiff $1.7 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Later reduced to a total of $5.2. million

SIGNIFICANCE: The "Tailhook Scandal" revealed misconduct and sexual harassment on the part of Navy officers at a Las Vegas hotel to be so shocking as to require the intervention by President George Bush and the resignation of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett. The high public regard for navy officers was severely damaged by the incident and prompted congressional hearings into discrimination against women in the military.

Navy Lieutenant Paula Coughlin was a 30-year-old helicopter pilot when she went to the annual convention of the Tailhook Association at the Las Vegas, Nevada, Hilton Hotel in September 1991. Tailhook was a private organization of active and retired Navy and Marine Corps fliers. Its name came from a device at the rear of a Navy plane that hooks onto a braking cable on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier as the plane lands.

After the weekend convention, Lieutenant Coughlin filed an official complaint, through Navy channels, saying that she had been sexually abused when she found herself "running a gauntlet" of dozens of officers with groping hands in a third-floor corridor of the hotel. At the same time, the Las Vegas Hilton billed the Navy for $23,000 worth of damages suffered during Tailhook's wild party.

With the whistle blown, the Navy announced, on October 30, that it was breaking all ties with Tailhook. It began looking into similar allegations made by several other women.

Seven months later, on May 1, 1992, separate reports were made public by the Naval Investigative Service and the Navy Inspector General. More than 1,500 people who had attended the convention had been interviewed. Fourteen female naval officers and 12 female civilians reported sexual abuse. The convention was described as a beehive of hospitality suites in which alcohol was heavily consumed while the cavorting of nude exotic dancers was punctuated by the screening of pornographic films. Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III immediately ordered the Navy and Marine Corps to begin disciplinary action against nearly 70 officers, including six who were accused of obstructing the inquiries and 57 suspected of participating in the "gauntlet."

Shortly thereafter, a supplemental report revealed that Secretary Garrett, himself, had been seen in one of the hospitality suites where the scandalous activities had occurred. The Defense Department's Inspector General took over the investigation, Tailhook canceled its 1992 convention, and Admiral Frank B. Kelso, Chief of Naval Operations, promised a service-wide program to train Navy personnel about sexual harassment issues. Admiral Kelso also admitted that he had attended the 1991 convention, but said he "didn't see anything untoward."

The President is Briefed on the Situation

It was not until June 26, 1992, that Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney briefed President George Bush on the reports. The President invited Lieutenant Coughlin to the White House that day to hear her description of an experience she said left her "the most frightened I've ever been." Within hours, Secretary Garrett resigned. Accepting the resignation that evening, the President did not include the "thank you" usually given a high official who resigns. Three days later, the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, protesting the "arrogance and obstruction" of the Navy, cut from its defense spending bill the funds for some 10,000 active-duty administrative personnel, and the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Senate blocked the approval of nearly 4,500 Navy and Marine promotions and transfers.

On July 29 the Los Angeles Times reported that aviators at the Miramar Naval Air Station near San Diego, California, had turned over to the Defense Department Inspector General's Office five rolls of film showing a teenage girl, apparently drunk, being stripped of her clothing by a crowd of rowdy Navy and Marine fliers in the gauntlet corridor at the 1991 Las Vegas Tailhook convention.

The next day, the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee held a hearing on discrimination against women in the military. Four members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified. Admiral Kelso, Chief of Naval Operations, admitted that the Navy had not paid attention to earlier evidence that women in the service were being mistreated.

On April 23, 1993, Pentagon Inspector General Derek J. Vander Schaaf released the Defense Department's three-hundred-page report on the Tailhook convention. Among the subheads of chapters in the report were "Streaking," "Mooning," "Butt Biting," "Pornography," "Public and Paid Sex," and "Ballwalking." Citing "the culmination of a long-term failure of leadership in naval aviation," it said that 117 officers were "implicated in one or more incidents of indecent assault, indecent exposure, conduct unbecoming an officer or failure to act in a proper leadership capacity." Of the 117 officers, the report stated that 23 were involved in indecent assaults and 23 in indecent exposure, while 51 lied to investigators. All faced disciplinary action. In addition, the report concluded that "the number of individuals involved in all types of misconduct or other inappropriate behavior" was "more widespread than these figures would suggest." Altogether, it said, several hundred officers concealed information so that "collective, stonewalling' significantly increased the difficulty of the investigation."

Report Cites 90 Victims

The 90 victims of assault included 7 servicemen, 49 civilian women, 22 servicewomen, 6 government employees, and the wives of 6 conventioneers. According to the report, misbehavior was traditional in "a type of 'free-fire zone'" at the convention, with the fliers acting "indiscriminately and without fear of censure or retribution in matters of sexual conduct and drunkenness." Furthermore, it noted, previous conventions and the triumphs of the Persian Gulf War earlier in 1991 had set up a sort of "can top this" atmosphere at the convention.

The Navy temporarily reassigned six senior officers (all captains and commanders) to desk duty ashore, but it took no disciplinary action against them, while Vice Admiral J. Paul Reason, commander of the Atlantic surface fleet, reviewed the report. A week later, the admiral docked $1,000 from the pay of each of 10 officers1 lieutenant commander, 2 junior-grade lieutenants, and 7 lieutenantsand gave them letters of admonition.

In a pre-trial hearing in a Marine courtroom in Quantico, Virginia, on August 17, 1993, Lieutenant Coughlin faced Captain Gregory Bonam, the pilot she had recognized, both from a photograph and in a lineup, as her chief molester in the gauntlet. Bonam's lawyer produced a photograph, purportedly snapped the night of the gauntlet, that showed him wearing not the burnt orange T-shirt that Coughlin had sworn she saw him in but a shirt with green and black stripes. No witness testified as to when the picture was taken. Character witnesses backed him as "very moral" and a "very good person." The Marine judge saw no need for a trial.

Six months later, in February 1994, after examining 140 cases of misconduct, the Navy closed the investigation of Tailhook. After a pre-trial hearing, Captain William T. Vest, Jr., a Navy judge, ruled that Admiral Kelso had used his influence as Chief of Naval Operations "in a manner designed to shield his personal involvement in Tailhook." Under oath, the admiral and three of his aides had testified that he did not witness the gauntlet assaults and that he was nowhere near them. But, said Vest, testimony of more than a dozen witnesses proved that the admiraldespite his denialwas present at some of Tailhook's wildest parties and made no effort to stop the sexual assaults. Furthermore, Vest added, Tailhook's reputation for including prostitutes, strippers, porn films, and plenty of alcohol in its festivities should have alerted the admiral that there might be trouble. Having put the blame on Admiral Kelso's shoulders, Vest concluded that charges against three of Kelso's subordinates should be dropped. Since Kelso's retirement was imminent further action was not taken. No trial followed the pre-trial hearing.

The U.S. Senate has the responsibility of approving the retirement rank and pensions of top military officers. By law, Admiral Kelso was entitled to retire with a two-star rank and a $67,000 annual pension. But, following tradition, the Senate's Armed Services Committee voted him four stars and $81,000 a year. For the full Senate's vote on April 19, nine Congresswomen, led by Representative Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), marched onto the Senate floor to join the seven female Senators (five Democrats and two Republicans) who opposed the committee's recommendation. The vote was 54-43 in favor of Kelso.

Coughlin Sues Hilton

With the investigation closed, Lieutenant Paula Coughlin sued both the Tailhook Association and the Las Vegas Hilton for compensatory damages for emotional distress. Then, citing emotional stress brought on by the lawsuits, and writing that "the covert attacks on me that followed have stripped me of my ability to serve," she resigned from the Navy on February 7, 1994. Her resignation letter made note of a newsletter titled The Gauntlet put out by former Navy pilots who used the pseudonym, "Paul A. Coffin."

On September 8, 1994, the Tailhook Association settled for an undisclosed amount. Four days later, the Hilton suit opened in the Las Vegas courtroom of Judge Philip M. Pro of the Federal District Court before a jury of four men and four women.

During a seven-week trial, Coughlin accused the Hilton Hotels Corporation and its subsidiaries of failing to set up proper security for the Tailhook convention, despite the fact that they had hosted 19 earlier Tailhooks, at many of which drunkenness and debauchery had been exhibited. Witnesses testified that during at least one convention, Hilton security guards found a teenage girl, in a Tailhook hospitality suite, nude from the waist down while in a drunken stupor.

Coughlin's lead lawyer, Dennis Schoville, argued that Tailhook had changed his client's life by bringing on a serious post-traumatic stress disorder. Testimony by psychiatrists and psychologists on both sides observed that she was deeply depressed and Coughlin herself testified that she had become suicidal as a result of the Las Vegas experience.

Hilton Defense Attorney Eugene Walt, however, produced a deposition made in August 1993 by Navy Lieutenant Roland Diaz that said Lieutenant Coughlin had allowed him to shave her legs while she was in uniform the night before she was assaulted in the gauntlet. Coughlin emphatically denied the allegation. Her attorney commented that the Diaz testimony was a setup and that the defense lawyers would do almost anything to win, including "destroying her reputation."

Walt admitted that the gauntlet incident had occurred but said it was overdramatized, and he argued that the post-traumatic stress "appears to be mild and closer to anger and less to a victim who has been sexually molested." Attorney Schoville ridiculed Walt's use of the word "mild," saying, "She feels used and dirty," and implored the jury to award his client $5$10 million in damages.

As Coughlin ended her testimony, Attorney Walt questioned why she had resigned from the Navy after agreeing in April 1992 to re-enlist for at least six years, enabling her to earn a bonus of $60,750. "I was drummed out of the Navy," she replied.

On October 28, 1994, its second day of deliberation, the jury found the Las Vegas Hilton negligent in failing to provide adequate security during the 1991 Tailhook convention. It awarded the former Navy lieutenant $1.7 million in compensatory damages for emotional distress and $5 million in punitive damages.

Almost six months later, on March 9, 1995, Judge Pro reduced the award. Revealing that the Tailhook Association's settlement, which had not been disclosed in September, was $400,000, the judge ruled that the amount must be subtracted from the $1.7 million compensatory-damages award. Furthermore, citing Nevada law that limits punitive damages to three times compensatory damages, Judge Pro cut the punitive award to $3.9 million. Thus Coughlin's total award stood at $5.2 million. The Las Vegas Hilton and its parent, the Hilton Hotels Corporation appealed the judgment; however, an appeals court upheld both the decision and the award in 1997.

The reputation of the Tailhook Association was damaged but not totally destroyed by the scandal. As the 1990s came to an end, the navy slowly began the process of possibly restoring ties with Tailhook. The navy sought complete guarantees from Tailhook that no sexual misconduct would ever happen again. In early January 2000, satisifed with the organization's public assurances, the navy officially restored ties to the Tailhook Association.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

DeArmond, Michelle. "Tailhook Whistleblower Awarded $5 million in Punitive Damages." Detroit News (October 29, 1994): Al.

LaCayo, Richard. "Lost in the Fun House." Time (February 21, 1994): 45.

Myers, Steven Lee. "8 Years Later, Navy Restores Official Ties to Tailhook." New York Times (January 20, 2000): A13.

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Paula Coughlin v. the Las Vegas Hilton: 1994

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