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CO-WORKERS DEMAND SLICE OF MEGA MILLIONS JACKPOT

Recent media reports told the story of a group of workers at a McDonald’s restaurant in Baltimore who struck it rich – to the tune of about $220 million – in a Mega Millions lottery. Not surprisingly, those reports also revealed that other employees are claiming a share of the massive jackpot.

This is a familiar story, having occurred numerous times in both the U.S. and Canada (strangely, it seems to happen often in fast food settings). After all, if you’re a person who has bought into a workplace lottery pool at some point, and there are $220 million at stake, why wouldn’t you assert a claim to a share of the winnings?

The office lottery pool is fraught with potential for legal squabbling. Given the amount of money at stake, it’s surprising how little attention is often given to the organization and administration of these pools.

The typical situation is that some energetic (or unlucky) person is stuck with the weekly task of collecting money and buying tickets, anyone and everyone who wants to contribute a few bucks is allowed in the pool, and in most cases there’s no issue because the winnings never amount to anything significant.

It’s all fun and games until someone hits the jackpot. And then the gloves come off.

The thing about lotteries is that, while your group’s chances of winning may be remote, someone always wins. So, as long as you continue purchasing tickets, there’s a chance you’ll end up facing a mob of present and past poolies demanding their share of the loot.

The office lottery pool tends to be complicated by the presence of numerous, changing participants and multiple tickets for draws taking place over an extended period of time. Existing players abandon ship, others join up, old tickets and small cash prizes generate more tickets (which may themselves earn additional free tickets in a future draw) and the whole thing goes on endlessly.

The result is a muddy situation in which it may be virtually impossible to distinguish who invested in which ticket and there may be no simple way to determine precisely who should share in the eventual winnings (not to mention what their share should be). There are, however, some basic rules for poolies aimed at eliminating squabbles (and the need to start hiring lawyers the minute they find themselves with a winning ticket).

First, the office lottery pool should not be a continuous, long-running affair. It needs to have periodic breaks which will clarify who is “in” and who is “out” on any given ticket.

One way to do this is to plan on halting the pool once any substantial jackpot has been won. Use up any remaining free tickets, distribute all accumulated winnings, and allow a clear break in time before the next pool makes a fresh start.

This allows existing players to abandon the pool and new ones to enter without ever muddying the waters of entitlement to winnings. If there isn’t a big win to use as the break point, do it at least annually.

Second, the group of participants must be clearly established at the outset of a pool and diligently controlled throughout. The pool administrator must keep accurate records of which co-workers have entered each pool.

Having each participant sign a short form of participation agreement would assist. It should set out the anticipated start and end dates of the pool, conditions of participation, ground-rules for sharing in winnings, etc.

Third, once a pool has commenced, no new participants should be allowed to enter until it ends and a new one is commenced. I call this the “no Johnny-come-latelies” rule – it prevents late-arriving players from laying claim to winnings and tickets to which they did not contribute.

Fourth, a participant entering the pool must commit to staying in for whatever number of weeks it takes for the current pool to run its course. This prevents people abandoning ship and then claiming a share of winnings obtained after they left.

The best way to ensure this happens is to get the participants’ money up front. This avoids people abandoning the pool part way through simply by not paying (or, perhaps worse, staying in the pool while in arrears).

Follow these rules and you’ll be well on your way to a dispute-free jackpot experience. I can’t do anything about the poor odds of hitting the jackpot, but these simple steps will definitely decrease the chances of having to spend years fighting over who gets the cash.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.