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Lawyers disagree over damages due Coughlin

Lawyers for Paula Coughlin said she should receive $5- to $10-million in damages resulting from a sexual assault on her at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention.

Lawyers for the Hilton hotel where the convention took place countered in closing arguments that Coughlin, a former Navy lieutenant who was the original whistle-blower on events at the convention, had suffered only mild injuries from the incident.

Coughlin has accused the Hilton Hotels Corp. and its subsidiaries of failing to set up proper security for the meeting, even though the hotel had been the scene of 19 previous Tailhook conventions, events that almost invariably turned into a full weekend of wild partying.

The Tailhook Association is an independent group of retired and active aviators.

Coughlin, a 32-year-old former helicopter pilot, was among several dozen women who complained they had been groped by drunken male aviators in a crowded third-floor gantlet during the final day of the convention. The Las Vegas Hilton became the sole remaining defendant in the case last month when Coughlin reached a settlement with the Tailhook Association.

Both sides in the seven-week trial in federal court described the conduct at the convention, which ranged from consensual oral sex to drunken assaults, as horrifying and inexcusable.

"I have no intention of attacking Coughlin," said Eugene Wait, a Hilton lawyer, "because the people in the hallway were wrong."

But at the same time during closing arguments on Thursday, Wait repeatedly challenged Coughlin's account of the events at the convention, suggesting that she had lied both to Navy investigators and in court.

The Hilton lawyer said Coughlin's case of post-traumatic stress, which was described in detail during the trial, "appears to be mild and closer to anger and less to a victim who has been sexually molested."