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August 30, 2014

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Hilton lawyer argues for overturn of Tailhook award

The case that stemmed from the Navy's Tailhook scandal was argued Tuesday in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Hilton attorney Larry Simms said Cory Weinper was legally unfit to serve on a federal jury because of a 1974 guilty plea in a California drug case. His failure to mention the plea prior to trail was part of "overwhelming evidence of Mr. Weinper's dishonesty," Simms told the appeals court.

The appellate court took the case under submission following the 45-minute hearing and issued no immediate ruling.

The Hilton hotel chain was appealing a 1994 verdict that awarded nearly $6.7 million to former Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin, the whistle-blower in the 1991 Tailhook scandal that sent shock waves through the male-dominated military.

In her suit against the Las Vegas Hilton and its parent company, the 32-year-old woman claimed the hotel failed to provide adequate security during the Tailhook gathering, allowing sexual assaults by drunken aviators to occur.

After she went public with the accusations, more than 80 other women came forward with claims that they also were fondled at the convention and forced to endure a rowdy gauntlet of male aviators.

Though others filed suit, Coughlin's remains the only to have gone to trial. The award, her attorneys said, is the largest in the scandal even after U.S. District Judge Phillip Pro, who presided in the case, reduced it to $5.2 million.

Following the trial, Pro called for a hearing on allegations of juror misconduct. Weinper took the stand, admitting he had previously failed to mention that he had been arrested four times on drug charges, cited four times in battery cases and been a plaintiff in three civil lawsuits.

One of the trial's more animated jurors, Weinper told Pro he "wasn't thinking about criminal" when asked about any previous record.

Pro let the verdict stand, ruling that there was no evidence of "actual prejudice" from the jury.

Hilton appealed, and on Tuesday Simms said that although he "couldn't get inside any juror's head," there was ample reason to believe Weinper should not have served on the jury.

He said that although Weinper pleaded guilty to only a misdemeanor in the 1974 drug case, California prosecutors originally had filed a more serious charge that met federal standards disqualifying him from service on a jury.

In addition, one of the civil lawsuits filed by Weinper, which he lost, involved allegations of assault against a taxi company. That civil case bore similarities to the Tailhook assault case and could have biased him, Simms said.

"All of these are objective ways of evaluating the existence of highly probable impartiality," Simms said.

Judge Thomas Nelson, one of three appellate judges hearing the case, noted that, despite allegations against the juror, Judge Pro had ruled Weinper a credible witness.

"It's pretty tough for us to walk over a credibility decision by a district judge," Nelson told Weinper.

Judge Betty Fletcher rhetorically asked the attorney whether Weinper's criminal record and his apparent dishonesty necessarily made him unable to judge the case fairly.

Attorney Dennis Schoville and Nancy Stagg, both representing Coughlin, urged the panel to uphold the verdict.

In a cross-appeal, they also asked for reinstatement of the full $6.7 million verdict, saying Judge Pro misinterpreted laws governing the limits of civil penalties in reducing the award by $1.5 million.

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