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Finder’s keepers?

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Here’s my scruples question of the day: You find a lottery ticket on the floor of a supermarket. It turns out to be a winner — for tens of thousands of dollars. Do you cash it in?

This happened in Britain recently. A couple found the ticket and cashed it. Then, the owner came forward with a receipt that proved she had bought the ticket. From the BBC:

The husband and wife have been handed 11-month suspended sentences for cashing in a £30,000 ($50,000) lottery ticket found on a shop floor, and spending half of it. And on Friday they were ordered to repay the remaining £15,000, plus £111 in interest, to Dorothy McDonagh, who was able to prove she had bought the ticket.

At a hearing in April, defence lawyer Rob Ross told the court: “It is important for the public to know that ‘Finders keepers, losers weepers’ is not true and never was true.”

McDonagh, of course, believes she should get all the winnings, but she’ll have to sue the lottery company, Camelot, to get the money. I’m not sure she’s going to prevail. She didn’t write her name on the back of the ticket and she didn’t file a lost claim ticket until after the drawing:

Camelot said it has clear procedures which it recommends people follow and said it was the responsibility of individual players to keep their tickets safe.

“Any dispute resulting from the claimant’s failure to disclose that a ticket was an item of lost property is a matter between the claimant and the original ticket-holders,” it said in a statement.

BBC takes this opportunity to give the history and legal “standing” of finder’s keepers:

“If you find something in the street, the law says you have more right to it than everyone else – except the owner. If the true owner doesn’t turn up, you can take ownership…”

So rather than “finders keepers, losers weepers”, a more legally accurate adage might be the rather less succinct “finders may become keepers if they try to find the owner, but losers still have the best claim unless they have abandoned the item”.

This is a pretty interesting case. Was the ticket abandoned? I mean, was she careless about it until she found out it was a winning ticket? On the other hand, the couple couldn’t seriously, in good conscience, spend that money, could they?

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