Brawl bystanders fight to keep Harrah's Laughlin lawsuit viable

They went to the 2002 Laughlin River Run for a good time and found themselves in the middle of a bloody biker brawl that ended with three dead.

Now a handful of innocent bystanders in the deadly riot between Mongols and Hells Angels find themselves fighting to keep their lawsuit against Harrah's Laughlin alive.

"These people went toe-to-toe with the big guy, and a couple of weeks before trial they have the carpet yanked out from under them," Las Vegas lawyer Brent Bryson said.

He represents seven people who were caught in the middle of the melee or swept up in its aftermath, including a Vietnam veteran who survived the battle on Hamburger Hill and a husband and wife who spent careers in law enforcement.

Their lawsuit against Harrah's Laughlin claims hotel officials knew about an impending violent showdown between the rival gangs yet did not warn patrons or take steps to prevent the violence.

The case had been heading toward trial until June, when lawyers for Harrah's Laughlin moved to dismiss it since it was similar to previous federal and state cases in which the hotel was cleared of negligence.

A similar motion made a year earlier before a different judge was denied, and the Nevada Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that decision.

But District Judge Susan Johnson agreed with Harrah's Laughlin lawyers and threw out the case. She followed that with a December decision ordering Bryson's clients to pay $317,000 in lawyer fees, saying they unnecessarily continued the case even after the other cases were tossed out of court.

It was after the December decision that Bryson learned through the grapevine that Johnson once worked with the lawyers now representing Harrah's Laughlin.

"There's the appearance of impropriety when you have such a strong decision and then it's compounded by an award of $317,000 in attorneys fees against innocent bystanders," Bryson said. "I'm completely dumbfounded by her ruling on attorneys' fees. That was a total abuse of discretion."

He is appealing the case to the Nevada Supreme Court on a number of legal grounds, including that the similar cases that failed were filed by biker gang members or their families, not innocent bystanders. He'll also challenge the judge's impartiality and whether she should have disclosed her ties to the lawyers when the case came to her.

"We were shocked and disappointed" after hearing about the judge's ties, said Kathy Fuller, who like her husband spent 19 years as a deputy sheriff in Riverside County, Calif. "It makes me suspect that everything is not as fair and impartial as it should be."

At a hearing Tuesday, Bryson asked Johnson to reconsider the lawyer fees and remove herself from the case.

She acknowledged working for the law firm of Rawlings, Olson and Cannon for seven years before quitting in 1992 and running her own practice until becoming a judge in 2006. Lawyer Jim Olson and his firm, Olson, Cannon, Gormley and Desruisseaux, represent Harrah's Laughlin.

The judge also acknowledged representing Harrah's Las Vegas at the time on slip-and-fall personal injury cases.

Olson said whether the judge once worked for him was irrelevant.

So did Johnson, who in a sworn statement filed in response to Bryson's motion said she had no bias in the case and never had any involvement with it as a lawyer.

Chief District Judge Kathy Hardcastle agreed and denied Bryson's request to remove Johnson. "The mere relationship between Judge Johnson and the law firm is not enough to warrant a disqualification," she wrote in her decision last month.

Leonard Gang, a former district judge and executive director of the Judicial Discipline Commission, said some judges might disclose such past working relationships but aren't required to. "I doubt that I would even disclose that," Gang said. "It's ancient history."

Bryson vowed to continue the fight, even though an appeal will likely take more than a year.

"My clients were victimized first by Harrah's at the River Run," he said. "They're victimized again when the case gets thrown out, and they're victimized a third time with these attorneys' fees, all without their day in court."

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at or (702) 383-0281.