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Lessons learned for a lottery player

Monday, February 05, 2007 posted 11:11 AM EST

When Chris Ramesar plays the Florida lottery, sometimes he gets a warning from his 8-year-old daughter, Gabriela.

"Daddy," she says, "remember what happened in New York?"

Ramesar is a 57-year-old co-owner of an auto body shop in Miami. He is thousands of miles and more than a decade removed from the day he found out his lucky numbers had come up in the lottery.

But he hasn't forgotten what happened, or the lesson he eventually learned ? that it is very hard to sue the New York Lottery successfully.

"I still think about it," he said in a telephone interview.

In 1993, Ramesar was working as a limousine driver in New York City. On July 17, the numbers he had always played in his weekly lottery subscription ? 21, 26, 28, 37, 50 and 54 ? came up in the Lotto Pick Six contest. The jackpot: $10 million.

He called his family. He bought roses and headed over to a jewelry manufacturer on 47th Street, where his wife, Maria, worked.

"My mother called me at work," Maria recalled. "She said, 'My goodness, how is my little millionaire?'"

The jubilation lasted until a lawyer representing the family called to inquire about collecting the jackpot. A lottery official told him there was no record of a winning ticket.

That's when Ramesar learned his application for a weekly subscription to the lottery had not been processed, even though he had mailed it two months previously. Lottery players may enroll in pre-paid weekly subscriptions that play the same numbers. The subscriptions become active after the player is sent a confirmation of receipt. The confirmation indicates the date on which the subscription will begin.

Ramesar mailed his application on May 7, but did not receive a confirmation of receipt until July 28 ? 11 days after the winning numbers were picked, according to court documents.

In the court papers, a lottery official said applications are usually processed and entered into the lottery's computer files within one to two days of receipt. Current subscription forms say to allow at least 10 working days "for processing."

In court documents, Ramesar said he had called the state lottery office in June and had been told he should soon receive confirmation that his application had been processed. The delay, it appeared, was caused in part because the lottery's headquarters were being moved from Albany to Schenectady.

Ramesar sued in the state Court of Claims, which handles civil litigation seeking damages against the state. The court handles about 1,500 claims a year, few of them directed at the state lottery. Only 19 lottery-related claims were returned when court officials at the Poughkeepsie Journal's request performed a search of the computer archive, which dates back about 20 years. The court maintains an online database of decisions that only began in March 2000.

Not all claims are from wannabe winners. Some relate to contracts between the state and vendors who sell the tickets.

Ramesar sued, claiming breach of contract and negligence. In dismissing the case, Judge Louis C. Benza cited lottery regulations that stipulate winning tickets are bearer instruments.

"It's like losing a dollar bill," said senior Court of Claims attorney Kevin Macdonald. "It's nice you had it, but if you don't have it, who knows if you did?"

The regulations also limit the state's liability in disputes ? the lottery director is subject only to refunding the player's entry cost.

"The rules and regulations governing operation of the Lottery contain provisions which so severely limit a player's remedy in the event of disputes about winning tickets as to effectively immunize the State from liability in this regard," Benza wrote.

One Long Island man found another way around those regulations to claim his share of a $70 million jackpot. On May 31, 1997, Howard Reid of Hempstead purchased 26 Lotto cards with 10 games each using $500 he had won just a few days earlier playing Lotto.

Four winning tickets came out of the drawing, one of which Reid had purchased. But before he realized he had won, Reid tore up his tickets and threw them away.

He realized his mistake after reading that one of the tickets had been purchased in the same store in which he had bought his. He checked his Lotto card, the one he used to make his entry, and found the winning numbers. He then went to retrieve the torn up tickets, but his wife had already taken out the garbage. The tickets were gone, strewn somewhere at a dump in Westbury.

When Reid sought advice from lawyers, one suggested finding a legislative remedy.

"It's simple," said Reid's attorney, Jerrold Parker of the Great Neck law firm Parker & Waichman, LLP. "If the law says you can't do something and you want to do something, you've got to change the law."

With help from state Sen. Kemp Hannon, R-Garden City, and a lobbying firm, Parker and Reid managed to get the state Legislature to pass a bill that would allow the state to award a "Lotto" prize to a claimant without a winning ticket. The winner would have to produce what is now referred to as a "perfected" claim. Such a claim would have to be accompanied by:

* A copy of a claim validation report showing that the original winning lottery ticket was produced by the online lottery computer system at the correct time and place.

* Play cards bearing the winning number combinations.

* A written statement from the licensed lottery sales agent stating that the agent believes the missing ticket was sold to the claimant.

* A written statement explaining the circumstances under which the winning ticket was lost.

* A filing fee of $100.

Gov. George E. Pataki vetoed the measure twice, citing technicalities. But on Aug. 31, 1999, Reid's luck turned when Pataki signed the bill into law. Reid was awarded $7.4 million. After taxes and lawyer fees, he reportedly took home $2 million and moved upstate.

"The guy really did win the lottery," Parker said. "He had absolute proof he had won. Even the lottery system didn't contest it."

In his auto body shop in Miami, Ramesar keeps a news clipping of Reid's story. Ramesar, the former limousine drive, likes to point out that Reid was a taxi driver.

After he lost in the Court of Claims, Ramesar appealed twice. Both times, Benza's decision was upheld.

"Am I bitter?" Ramesar said. "I am kind of a little bit upset with the state. I was a loyal player. But I've moved on with my life. I own my own business. We're financially secure. My happiness is with my daughter."

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