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Paula Coughlin v. the Las Vegas Hilton: 1994

The President Is Briefed On The Situation, Report Cites 90 Victims, Coughlin Sues 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."

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1989 to 1994