B.C. gambling addicts get go ahead to sue lottery after being denied winnings

Steve Mertl

The B.C. Lottery Corp.'s TV ads promoting gambling products used to end with the cautionary tag "Know your limit, play within it."

But of course a percentage of gamblers don't know their limits, so sterner measures are needed. Now the Crown-owned gaming monopoly is facing a class-action lawsuit launched by two problem gamblers who say the BCLC owes them thousands of dollars in winnings, according to The Canadian Press.

See if this makes sense to you. Hamidreza Haghdust and Michael Lee were voluntarily enrolled in a BCLC program that bars problem gamblers from casinos operated by the corporation. Under the program, gamblers are registered and their identities given to the facilities, which will toss them out if they're spotted.

[ Related: Problem gamblers get class-action win from B.C. court ]

However, the program isn't foolproof and gambling addicts often find ways to sneak in and play. That's what Haghdust and Lee did, according to court documents reported by CP.

Haghdust was caught several times and Lee once during their exclusion periods. Haghdust lost about $200,000 and Lee about $30,000 in their furtive forays.

But they persisted and lady luck finally visited them. Haghdust won $15,000 during a stint at a suburban Vancouver casino in 2009 and another $20,000 the following year at a Vancouver establishment. Meanwhile, Lee won more than $42,000 at a casino in Duncan, on Vancouver Island, in 2010.

However, when they went to collect their winnings, the casinos wouldn't pay up.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice John Savage, who certified their suit as a class action on Wednesday, found the voluntary exclusion form did not include any provision spelling out that signees would forfeit any winnings if they broke the self-imposed ban.

Their lawyer, Paul Bennett, told CP the exclusion program is flawed because it allowed his client to lose but never win.

“That’s why it’s a penalty," he said. "People come into the casino, they gamble, they lose their money, but when they win they can’t win.”

Bennett said he expects the lottery corporation to appeal the judge's class-action certification, which opens the door for other gamblers to join the suit.

Savage's ruling noted that between June 4, 2010, and July 4, 2012, the corporation withheld 187 jackpot prizes from program participants, CP said.

CBC News reported more than 6,000 British Columbians are enrolled in the self-exclusion program. The corporation said at least 300 self-excluded gamblers have been denied winnings since April 2009.

This isn't the first time the program has come under fire from gambling addicts.

[ Related: Gambling addict takes B.C. Lottery Corp. to court ]

Joyce Ross launched a suit last fall after losing more than $330,000 in savings and borrowed money at two casinos despite being in the program. She claimed the corporation and casinos didn't do enough to keep her from gambling, CBC News reported.

The program also came under criticism in 2011 when compulsive gambler Yoo Choi committed suicide after piling up $150,000 in debts despite being registered for voluntary exclusion, CBC News said.

The B.C. Coroners Service said there were 34 gambling-related suicides between 2003 and 2010.