Williamson jury: Mom gets most blame in teen’s death

August 29, 2011 | In The News, Randy Howry

By Claire Osborn, Austin American-Statesman Staff

A Williamson County jury decided this month that three people were negligent in the drinking death of an underage girl: a liquor store employee, the girl’s mother and the 17-year-old herself.

Savannah Skye Smith died of alcohol poisoning on Feb. 10, 2009, according to a lawsuit filed by her mother, Debra Smith, against the employee of the liquor store, James East, and his wife, Terri Bayless East, who owned the store.

The lawsuit accused James East of knowingly selling alcohol to an underage Savannah at Avery Fine Wines and Spirits on Parmer Lane in Austin from July 2008, when the girl was 16, until the day of her death. (more…)

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Lawsuit filed against W over falling glass panels

June 30, 2011 | In The News, Sean Breen

By Gary Dinges, Austin American-Statesman Staff

Two people injured earlier this month when a pair of glass panels fell more than 20 stories into the pool area at the W Austin are suing the hotel and operator Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide.

The suit, filed late yesterday by attorney Sean Breen, alleges the hotel had been warned about potential problems with the glass prior to the June 10 incident. After the panels fell, the two hotel guests claim the W’s response was inadequate, allowing three more to crash down Monday afternoon.

“One of the major concerns of my clients is that the W wasn’t doing what it needed to do,” Breen said. “This is clearly a serious problem.” (more…)

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Cheated lottery winner files suit

May 23, 2011 | In The News, Sean Breen

By Steven Kreytak, Austin American-Statesman Staff

A Dallas-area man who Travis County prosecutors say had his $1 million lottery ticket stolen by a convenience store clerk in 2009 has sued the Texas Lottery Commission and others in hopes of recovering all of his winnings.

Lawyers for Willis Willis, a retired Grand Prairie maintenance man, filed the suit in state District Court in Travis County last week against the lottery commission, Gtech Corp, which runs the lottery, and the owner of a convenience store where Willis bought his ticket. (more…)

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Randy Howry comments on lawsuit filed by fitness center

April 13, 2010 | In The News, Randy Howry

Two years ago, 4-year-old Colin Holst drowned in a Life Time Fitness swimming pool surrounded by adults and lifeguards.

After being hit with a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit by Colin’s parents, Life Time is suing Colin’s mother and two of her friends, accusing them of trespassing, fraud, and breach of contract. The company claims that Jana Holst, Jennie Stafford, and Deborah Stack did not follow the gym’s guest policy and that the women should pay damages, court costs, and all other expenses related to the lawsuits surrounding Colin’s death.

Stack and Stafford’s lawyer, Damon Robertson , calls the lawsuit outrageous. (more…)

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Judge orders some of stolen lottery winnings returned; store clerk still at large

February 17, 2010 | In The News, Randy Howry, Sean Breen

By Steven Kreytak, Austin American-Statesman Staff

A judge in Austin on Tuesday ordered that $395,000 seized in a lottery fraud investigation be given to Willis Willis, a Dallas-area maintenance man who prosecutors say was the rightful winner of a $1 million jackpot last year.

“I feel great right now,” said Willis, 68, outside court. He wants to use his winnings to pay off medical bills, to pay the college tuition bills for the youngest of his six daughters and to buy a new set of golf clubs. He does not plan to work again.

The order by state District Judge Bob Perkins comes as authorities are continuing to search for Pankaj Joshi, a convenience store clerk in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie who prosecutors say stole Willis’ ticket in May when Willis asked him to check if it was a winner. (more…)

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Lawyers say lottery won’t pay defrauded winner

November 3, 2009 | In The News, Sean Breen

By Isadora Vail, Austin American-Statesman

Texas Lottery officials Monday told a Grand Prairie man who said his million-dollar lottery ticket was stolen by a store clerk that even though the clerk didn’t play fair, by state rules, the clerk is the winner.

Willis Willis, a 67-year-old maintenance man, said his winning ticket was stolen after he asked a store clerk to check his numbers. Prosecutors say the ticket was signed and cashed in by 25-year-old Pankaj Joshi, who was indicted in Travis County last month on a charge of claiming a lottery prize by fraud and who is considered a fugitive.

But lottery officials told Willis that a ticket is considered a bearer instrument, making whoever signs and presents the ticket to the Texas Lottery Commission the winner, said Sean Breen, an attorney for Willis.

“If a lottery agent can show up and collect a prize, with no oversight and no recourse, then the Texas lottery is a sham,” Breen said.

The lawyer said he and Willis met with the Lottery Commission’s general counsel Monday. The commissioners appear to be critical of Mr. Willis for not signing his ticket, but that is not a rule.

Lottery representatives could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Travis County Assistant District Attorney Patricia H. Robertson, who is prosecuting the case, said her office is working with federal authorities and Interpol to locate Joshi.

“We hope to return the stolen funds to Mr. Willis,” she said. “Mr. Willis is the rightful owner of the funds that we seized from Mr. Joshi’s accounts.”

According to Texas Lottery rules, a winning ticket can be claimed through the mail, at local claim centers or at the Texas Lottery Commission headquarters, at 611 E. Sixth St. in Austin. The mail option is the only one that requires a signature on the ticket, according to the lottery’s Web site.

“When Mr. Willis heard that he wasn’t going to be receiving any of the money he won, he said it was like losing all the money all over again,” Breen said. “This is a huge blow to the integrity of the Texas state lottery.”

Willis bought $20 in lottery tickets May 29 in a Lucky Food Store on Great Southwest Parkway in Grand Prairie, according to a police affidavit. Willis returned a couple of days later and asked the attendant to check the tickets for him.

Authorities said the attendant, Joshi, told Willis that he won only $2. Willis took the money and left the store.

On June 25, Joshi redeemed the winning ticket, which officials believe Willis originally bought, at lottery headquarters in Austin. Officials wired $750,000 into Joshi’s bank account.

Police investigated after Joshi’s co-workers told authorities that they had never seen him play the lottery.

Breen said money seized by the district attorneys office, about $365,000, has not been awarded to Willis. Breen said he plans to file a court order for that money and will seek special permission from the Legislature to help Willis redeem his winnings.

Austin police Detective Billy Petty said the rest of the winnings were probably wired out of the country. Petty said he thinks that Joshi, who had worked at the store for about five years while a student at University of Texas at Arlington, has gone to his native Nepal.

Breen said fraud by lottery agent clerks is not anything new in Texas. “But we’ve reached new heights in the magnitude of what they are stealing, and the lottery is well aware of this security problem.”

Additional material from the San Antonio Express-News.

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