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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

MGM Mirage Defends Valet Parking With Key Left in Car

24 August 2005

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Until July, only one car had been stolen out of New York-New York's valet parking area in that property's 11-year history.

Unfortunately for Lisa Lopez, her car became No. 2.

The theft happened on July 12, her birthday, during one of several trips Lopez and her husband Ron make to Las Vegas each year. The San Bernadino area couple, who are frequent gamblers at the property, were given a free hotel room during their stay.

The suspect, who pled guilty to the crime in court this week, stole Lopez' 2004 Pontiac GTO by turning the key that had been left in the ignition and driving through a security arm, according to a police report. He drove recklessly, crashing through a security arm and then stopping the vehicle after it was blocked by another car in front of it. The suspect attempted to escape on foot but was apprehended by valet attendants who saw the incident.

The incident highlights a little-known practice of parking cars at MGM Mirage properties and how a company can minimize its financial and legal risk.

MGM-owned properties including Bellagio, Mirage, Treasure Island, New York-New York and MGM Grand park cars by leaving the keys in the ignition rather than locking them in a box or keeping them in a parking booth. The method of parking cars at properties the company recently purchased from Mandalay Resort Group -- including Mandalay Bay, Excalibur and Luxor -- wasn't available by press time.

The reason keys are kept in the car is so that the properties can park and retrieve cars faster and more efficiently, MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said. The company has determined that the valet parking areas have enough security features, including surveillance cameras and security gates, to protect vehicles from theft, he said.

"I think our safety record speaks for itself," he said.

Lopez begs to differ.

"I don't believe that saving time is a legitimate excuse," she said. "If I had known they left keys in the cars I never would have used the valet. I think people have a right to know how their cars are parked."

At New York-New York, the valet ticket customers receive when they turn in their cars states that the company isn't liable for any damage done to the vehicle. It's common, boilerplate language used by many companies to limit their risk, experts say.

Such waivers are often tested in court by customers who believe a property was negligent in protecting their vehicle from damage or theft, said Ellis D. Norman, a former hotel manager who teaches courses in hotel operations and human resources at UNLV.

MGM Mirage agreed to accept responsibility for the theft.

After a month of negotiations, the company cut Lopez a check for $15,000 -- money based on equity in the car and including six months of payments. The company also cut another check for $23,000 to pay off the wrecked vehicle for a total liability of about $38,000, Feldman said.

Feldman said MGM Mirage met its legal responsibility to replace the car's "fair market value." The company hired an appraiser based in California to determine the value of the car, he said. The company also paid for a month's use of a rental car plus several thousand dollars to take into account a limited-time financing arrangement with the manufacturer that is no longer offered -- both steps that were taken as goodwill toward Lopez and weren't required of the company, he said.

Lopez said that wasn't enough to get her the same model of car and has resulted in monthly car payments that are about $113 per month more than they were before the incident.

"This is not about what's legally required," Lopez said. "For some people an extra $100 a month may not seem like much but to us it's a lot. My husband and I both work for the Chino School District. We don't live in luxury. I'm going to be making those payments every month for the next five years."

"We kept telling them to do the math ... but they played games with us for a month and then didn't want to negotiate any more," she said. The money also wasn't enough to buy the rims and tires the couple bought especially for the car, she added.

While MGM Mirage might not be legally liable for the amount Lopez was asking for, the company might have ended up ahead by giving her a few thousand dollars in exchange for keeping her as a customer for several years to come, Ellis said.

Ellis, who has represented hotels in car theft cases, owns a Las Vegas company called Hospitality Experts Consortium whose members offer expert testimony for and against hotels in court.

"If someone tells you what the problem is it's a great opportunity to change things for the positive," he said. "They had a chance for a service reversal here."

Las Vegas hotels are adept at negotiating what they believe to be fair compensation, Ellis added.

"If this was an important person who spends millions in the casino, they would go out and buy him a new car," he said. "If it's an average Joe, they can take a pretty hard stand. It's not equal treatment of guests because guests' pocketbooks are not equal."

Lopez said she is so soured by the experience that she won't patronize any MGM Mirage-owned casinos and has vowed never to drive her new Pontiac to Las Vegas. This, even though most of the Strip's casinos are now owned by MGM Mirage and given the hassle of renting a car.

"That would always be on my mind and I don't think I would enjoy my visit," she said of driving her car. "Our visit with them ended up costing me more money," she said. "I'm not going to give them any more of my money."

Lopez said she and her husband "aren't high rollers" and typically spend a few hundred dollars per night gambling in Las Vegas. They come six to seven times a year to stay at the Venetian or MGM Grand and typically gamble at New York-New York. This trip was their first stay at the New York-themed property.

"Out here our cars are our lives," she said. "They're willing to take the risk and it's not fair. They have more security for their slots and table games. But what about our valuables?"06