Many people play the lottery and other contests. They take part in office pools, buy tickets together with their spouse or friends, accept scratch ticket giveaways, enter promotional contests, or just happened to be standing next to someone when they buy a 6/49 ticket. Winning an amount of money or a prize of any significant value should be a happy occasion, and the winner should enjoy their windfall. Too often, however, there are disputes, and it is good for participants to understand how these disputes will be resolved.
Depending on who has the money and who wants the money, the legal claim will be framed either as a “breach of contract” case or a claim for “unjust enrichment”. If you are alleging that you had an agreement (verbal or written) with a purported winner, and are looking to get your share, your claim that the other person breached a contractual agreement. If your claim is that someone else was awarded money that is rightly yours, your claim against them would be for unjust enrichment.
In either case, your claim will be grounded in contract law, directly or indirectly. Unjust enrichment claims require a plaintiff to prove; 1. an enrichment, 2. a corresponding deprivation, and 3. the lack of any juristic (that is “based in the law”) reason for the enrichment. In a lottery claim, the first two parts would normally be straightforward (one person receives money and another feels they have been deprived of it), after which the third part of the test is going to involve a contract law analysis, to find if there is a juristic reason.
In order to be a valid contract, certain elements must be present, including an intention to be legally bound. Gift promises (such as a promise to make a charitable donation, or to leave a person something in your will) have traditionally not been enforced by courts because they lack the elements of a contract. For an agreement to be deemed a contract, there must be an offer, an acceptance of that offer, and consideration. Consideration may be defined as “a performance or return promise for which a party to the contract has bargained”. Usually, “consideration” means the money you pay for the thing you want. Promises to share winnings made by purchasers of lottery tickets are simply gift promises, and are thus unenforceable.
There are examples of cases in Canada and other common law jurisdictions which have dealt specifically with disputes over lottery winnings. From these, some general principles can be derived.
- Verbal agreements to split “any” future lottery win are generally not enforceable.
- Just because you bought your tickets with money from a joint account does not entitle others on the account to a share.
- An established pattern of buying tickets together will likely stick, so long as the subject ticket clearly fits within the pattern. (For example, an agreement and pattern for splitting weekly 50-50 ticket costs and winnings in a bowling league did not extend to special scratch and win tickets at the league Christmas party in the case of Lilly v. Phillips.)
- Simply going to pick up tickets would not be considered “consideration” in contractual terms, unless that effort was specifically agreed in advance by the parties to count as their share of the ticket purchase. In practice, to avoid potential confusion, it would be best to actually split the purchase price itself. A short text message exchange (prior to the ticket purchase) establishing the entitlement of either individual to a prize can go a long way in ensuring harmony thereafter.
- Anything written on the ticket itself may be considered evidence indicating the intent of the parties, but would not necessarily be conclusive in-itself to establish whether there was a contract. It is noteworthy in this regard that, at least in Nova Scotia, there is nothing in the relevant legislation (the Gaming Control Act) that establishes whether what is written on the ticket is of particular significance.
- Lotteries may have “house rules” which will establish a contract between the players and the lottery organizers, but will typically not (and, in some cases, could not) necessarily bind co-players in their relationships to one another. Nevertheless, you should read any house rules.
Knowing how courts will treat lottery disputes should help us all become better players, and reduce the chances of disputes arising. For those who enjoy playing lotteries together, understanding who is “in” can only increase the enjoyment. All knowledge is valuable, but when you know the law, you will truly know if you have won the lottery.