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Beware of Sharks Swimming in Your Office Lottery Pool

9:28 AM, Nov 28, 2012   |    comments
Nitesh Phel sells Powerball tickets at Circle News Stand on Tuesday in Hollywood, Fla.(Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)
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Mark Vanderhoof, The Louisville Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE - Linda Sebastian enjoys her job , but she knows exactly what would happen if the members of her office lottery pool hit their numbers and won Wednesday's record $500 million Powerball jackpot.

"My group, we'd wipe our whole floor out," she laughed. "There'd be nobody left in the office."

Even her boss is a member of the pool. "I tease him all the time," she said. "I say, 'I'll meet you at the lottery headquarters.'"
But if you join an office lottery pool, you may want to consult a lawyer first. Some workers who had thought they struck it rich have wound up in bitter litigation over who was really in the pool and who wasn't.

Lawsuits involving lottery pool winnings have been common enough to create a new set of case law, said Russ Weaver, a University of Louisville law professor. A cursory Google search shows some "Lotto lawyers" across the country who specialize in such disputes.

"Be very careful in advance," Weaver advised. "One thing you don't want to do is end up in litigation. Attorneys will eat up quite a bit of your winnings."

Weaver's advice for people who want to join workplace lottery pools: Make photocopies of the group lottery tickets and distribute them to members before the drawing so there's clear proof which tickets belong to the group and which belong to individuals.

Weaver said you need to be able to show, "Did you make the decision before or after the numbers came out?"

Just this March, a judge ordered Americo Lopes of New Jersey to share a $38.5 million jackpot with his lottery pool despite Lopes' claim that he bought the ticket on his own.
And after a March 30 drawing for a nationwide record-breaking $656 million Mega Millions jackpot, a lottery pool scandal erupted when Mirlande Wilson of Maryland came forward to claim the prize. Members of the lottery pool she participated in at a Baltimore McDonald's where she worked said they were entitled to part of the winnings, but Wilson claimed she bought the ticket on her own.

She later said she lost the ticket, and another group came forward with a winning ticket. Wilson's former co-workers sued her in October, claiming she secretly gave the lottery ticket to the second, smaller group so she would not have to split the money with as many people.

Not all winning lottery pools end unhappily.

Bonnie Bullock, for example, was among the "Nukote 22," a group of 22 co-workers who won a $61.5 million Powerball jackpot in September 2007. Even after winning, she said, nobody quit at the Nukote International customer service center in Bardstown, Ky.
"We were such a family," Bullock said. "We had worked together so long and knew each other so well."

The day the group went to claim their winnings, four of them stayed behind to work the phones at the office, including one woman who returned from vacation to help.

Nevertheless, the company's executives rushed to the Bardstown office.

"They thought we were going to leave that day," Bullock said. "They came up from Nashville in carloads. We were customer service -- we held the company together. They wanted us to train them in a couple of days. They were shocked we weren't going to leave. I can imagine it was mind-boggling."

The company has since closed the Bardstown office, but the Nukote 22 still play the Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries every week, Bullock said. They even gather for monthly dinners.

Sebastian, who was among those buying lottery tickets Tuesday in downtown Louisville, is hoping for a happy ending too. She said her group normally varies from five to 15 members, but has grown to 20 participants since the Powerball jackpot swelled.

One of her co-workers, Kathy Coombs, said members of the pool talk about two things: "Who's going to stay at work and what we'd do with our money."

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