The Hoosier Lottery Quiz

Time for some ethical problem solving, courtesy of the fine folks in Shelbyville, Indiana.

Let’s say A and B have bought a $5 state lottery ticket, and ask the clerk where they bought it if it’s a winner. The clerk, who is not on the ball on this particular day, only checks the 40 buck winning number, and it doesn’t match. “Nope,” she says. So A and B toss the ticket in the trash basket. But it was a winner. A $100,000 winner.

C sees a lottery ticket in the trash bin, and fishes it out. She discovers that it’s a winner and claims the $100,000 dollars.

Is she correct? Legally, yes. The ticket was abandoned, thrown away. Anyone who claimed it became the rightful owner.

Ethically, it’s a more complex issue. The purchasers of the ticket threw it away because the clerk didn’t check properly; they were told it was worthless, and it wasn’t. Applying principles of fairness and especially reciprocity, C (whose real name is Kerrie Jeremiah) should give the ticket back to the original owners. Their loss of the ticket due to another’s error makes them just as much victims as if the ticket had been stolen or lost. "If I drop $100,000 in the street and walk away and the next person picks it up, it’s their money," Jeremiah has said. True enough. But if you throw away $100,000 when you think you are throwing out the newspaper, it’s a mistake. (Remember Uncle Billy in “It’s a Wonderful Life”?) This was a mistake too.

Now let’s say, for the sake of argument, that C does give back the ticket. Should A and B keep the $100,000? They certainly can; the ticket belongs to them. But the right thing to do would be to split the lottery prize with C. She rectified the clerk’s error and behaved kindly, honestly and ethically. Without C, A and B would get nothing. A and B should give C $50,000 in gratitude.

Back to the real world: Is there any chance that this will happen in Shelbyville, where the real lottery ticket was purchased, misread and found? Naaaah. A and B are going to try to sue the café for negligence, and the café is going to sue the Lottery itself for failure to train those who sell the lottery tickets, and C is going to keep all the money, probably give half of it away to relatives and friends with sob stories, and misery will reign all around. The ethical course would be so much better for everyone, except, perhaps, for the lawyers.

While life is often an ethics quiz, it’s easier to give away $100,000 in theory than in practice. Still, in this case and frequently in others, ethics would work better than the law.


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