In the wake of a record-breaking $580 million Powerball jackpot that none of us won, we all returned to our soul-crushing legal jobs and forgot about the dream of owning an island or riding a partner around the office like horse until the next big jackpot.
But some lawyers are making a living off the lottery. One law firm in New York, Certilman Balin, has even registered the domain name thelotterylawyer.com to tout their expertise in estate planning for lottery winners. That’s some quality SEO. Professional legal advice for lottery winners is a growing cottage industry as the public becomes more familiar with jackpot winners squandering their money.
But estate planning isn’t nearly as entertaining as the crying and gnashing of teeth from litigation. And lotteries have spawned some wild cases because wherever there are deep pockets and petty people there are legal fees just waiting to be collected.
The most common lottery-related lawsuit arises from lottery pool disputes. Personally, I’ve never understood lottery pools. Co-workers pool their money to buy more tickets to increase their chance of winning, but the slightly increased odds from 1 in 175,223,510.00 to maybe 20 in 175,223,510.00 aren’t worth the 100% chance that you’re going to have to share any possible winnings. That said, this guy makes a pretty compelling case that contributing to the pool is worth it solely to avoid your co-workers winning and shoving it in your face.
But lottery pools can turn litigious when the manager of the pool claims to buy tickets on the side. New Jersey construction worker Americo Lopes ran a lottery pool for years until he found himself holding a winning ticket. He immediately quit his job claiming he needed foot surgery (he didn’t), filed for unemployment benefits and sat on a $24 million jackpot (roughly $17 million after taxes). You have to hand it to him for holding $17 million and thinking, “is there any way I could get an extra couple hundred bucks a week?”
He decided to keep this win from his fellow pool members, who were shocked to eventually learn that Americo was the wealthiest unemployment recipient in America. He claimed that he purchased the winning ticket with personal funds and didn’t have to share with the rest of the pool. The jury disagreed.
Lopes’s lawyer bemoaned that “there are innocent people sent to jail for crimes they didn’t commit by the same standard of reasonable doubt this jury used.” Shhh. Don’t tell him it was a civil trial.
There’s also a case in Florida where the state lottery has decided to not pay out for winning tickets. Florida claims they misprinted the tickets and don’t have to pay. The case is getting interesting, with attorneys for the plaintiff going after documents that they think will prove that Florida knowingly issued misprints and tried to cover it up.
We should totally let this state run elections that decide the future of the country.
But the most bizarre legal dispute over a lottery ticket comes to us from Arkansas, where the courts got involved in sorting out who owns a ticket thrown in the garbage. Sharon Jones claimed a $1 million prize in a scratch-off game. But Jones didn’t purchase the ticket, she dug it out of the garbage at the local Super 1 Stop. The store itself sued Jones, claiming that the prize was theirs because it was thrown in their garbage. Claiming they deserve the prize implies that the Super 1 Stop routinely roots through its garbage to check discarded lottery tickets. I’m incredulous.
And so was the judge, who didn’t buy that argument but suggested that the purchaser of the ticket may deserve the prize instead. Enter Sharon Duncan (what’s with all the Sharons?), who purchased the ticket and threw it away because she thought it was a loser. Judge Thomas Hughes ruled that Duncan had never abandoned the ticket and therefore deserved the prize.
Apparently in Arkansas, throwing something in the garbage doesn’t mean you’re done with it. No wonder the Super 1 Stop argued that they could claim the contents of their garbage. The judge reasoned that Duncan never intended to abandon $1 million when she threw away a ticket that she thought had lost. I don’t know…strikes me that she definitely intended to throw away a ticket and that’s all that should matter.
Ultimately, the judge reversed himself and ordered a new trial and the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
Joe Patrice is the author of Recess Appointment, a blog about political rhetoric, and he’ll be dropping in occasionally to write about the intersection of law and politics. To answer the question that you’re probably about to ask, he got his J.D. at NYU and spent ten years working at a Biglaw firm and a white-collar defense boutique. His favorite word is sesquipedalian.