Does an online casino make it harder or easier for someone to stop gambling?
That question sits at the center of Sam A. Antar’s lawsuit against BetMGM. Antar is an admitted compulsive gambler who’s served time in prison for ripping off clients and is the nephew of one of the New York metro area’s most notorious white-collar criminals.
He says BetMGM iCasino’s VIP hosts continued to ply him with enticements to gamble even after he lost millions of dollars playing various games online. But BetMGM claims Antar could have stopped at any time and that its New Jersey hosts were well within their rights in trying to keep him engaged.
In its final filing before the civil suit is either dismissed, sent to arbitration, or allowed to proceed in open court, BetMGM’s attorneys argue that case law is on their side. Among numerous cases cited in their briefs is that of Arelia Taveras, a formerly wealthy lawyer who unsuccessfully sued several casinos — including the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and Atlantic City’s Trump Taj Mahal — in 2007 for letting her gamble away her fortune.
Taveras claimed that in the midst of multi-day gambling benders, she was permitted to resume playing even after passing out at the table for several hours. She was eventually incarcerated for stealing money from her clients, just like Antar.
The casinos argued that it was Taveras’ responsibility to police her own behavior. Ultimately, a judge agreed.
But Antar’s attorney, Matthew Litt, thinks her case and others are dated.
“We’re in a completely different world now,” Litt told US Bets. “When Taveras was decided, we were talking about brick-and-mortar casinos. It was before everybody was literally walking around with a casino in their pocket.
“Long before online gambling was legalized, we knew the closer a person lived to a casino, the more likely they were to be a compulsive gambler. Now that everybody lives with a casino in their pocket, you can’t apply brick-and-mortar laws to the temptation of being able to gamble 24/7 on your smartphone.”
Keith Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, has been monitoring the Antar-BetMGM case. While he thinks it will eventually be dismissed, he added that “BetMGM has some explaining to do.” (Through a spokesperson, BetMGM declined to comment for this story.)
“Every case like this has either been dismissed or settled out of court,” Whyte said. “In the short term, maybe that’s the way the industry wants to go, but in the long term, that means that nobody — not legislators, operators, or their employees — knows where the line is, whether their marketing and VIP work is too much. No state defines it. No regulator defines it. So everybody’s operating a little bit in the dark.”
In response to Whyte, Litt said, “He’s absolutely right that the consumer or the gambler has lost this case for the last 50 years, and that’s why this case is so important, because there have been monumental changes since the last time an issue like this has been decided by a court.”
‘You can’t make that excuse anymore’
In seeking to dismiss Antar’s lawsuit — or short of that, to compel arbitration — BetMGM’s attorneys argue that “Antar could log off any time he wanted.”
That’s technically true, but anyone who knows anything about gambling addiction would concur that that’s quite difficult for a problem gambler to do.
“The lack of duty of care — it’s not just New Jersey, it’s nationwide,” said Whyte. “What did the casino know and when did they know it, and what did they do with that information? In the absence of the law saying, ‘That’s too much,’ it’s not clear that they broke any law or regulation — which is a shame. It can definitely harm gamblers, but it can also harm the casino if no one knows what that line is. If you don’t create that standard, eventually there’s going to be a court case that they lose.”
Litt thinks that case is his, due in no small part to a significant change in how the American Psychiatric Association classifies compulsive gambling.
“Back when the last case in New Jersey was decided on this issue, compulsive gambling was classified as DSM-3 alongside things like pyromania and kleptomania,” the attorney said. “DSM-5 was published in 2013, after Taveras and all of these cases where consumers have lost. Now compulsive gambling is classified alongside alcoholism, opioid addiction, every chemical addiction. So the understanding of what compulsive gambling is has changed completely since all these courts have held that it’s the compulsive gambler’s fault and no one else’s.
“The state of New Jersey has now enacted a code to require all customer-facing casino employees to be trained to recognize the signs of compulsive gambling. In Taveras, they said, ‘How do they know what a compulsive gambler looks like?’ You can’t make that excuse anymore.”
When asked what sort of standard would be optimal in regard to duty of care, Whyte said, “I compare it to the bright-line test in the alcohol industry. There’s a responsibility by the provider, but there’s individual responsibility — shared responsibility, the operator and the individual. The operator is generally protected from liability if they can show that they did what they needed to do.
“I worked my way through school tending bar. I knew exactly what would happen to me — or my bar would be liable — if I over-served a patron. No one in the gambling industry has that same bright line.”
Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images