When an Arkansas woman plucked a million-dollar lottery ticket from a convenience-store garbage can last July, she figured another person’s trash was her treasure.
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However, Sharon Jones could now be forced to return the prize money of $680,000 after taxes that she and her husband won. A month after she collected her winnings, the clerk at the convenience store in Beebe, Ark., where she got the ticket sued for the money, and a woman claiming she was the original buyer of the ticket joined the lawsuit.
Last week a judge ruled in favor of Sharon Duncan, the woman who claimed she threw the $20 scratch-off ticket in the trash only after she scanned it on the in-store machine and was told it was not a winner.
Jones and her attorney, Jimmy Simpson, spoke with Matt Lauer on TODAY Monday about the judge’s ruling, which Jones is appealing. Her claim is that the ticket was abandoned property when she found it, so essentially it’s a case of “finders keepers, losers weepers.’’
“I was surprised (at the ruling), but I think that everything will be fine,’’ Jones said.
“(The judge) basically ruled that she abandoned the paper the ticket is, but that she did not abandon the claim to it that she gained with her purchase of the $20 ticket,’’ Simpson said.Story: 2 Arkansas women fight to claim $1M lotto ticket
Jones and her husband have spent $190,000 of the prize money already, and neither of them is currently employed, so having to pay back all the money may not be feasible at this time.
“There’s no way that I can figure it out right now, but I’d have to, I guess, if it came down to it,’’ Jones said about repaying the money.
Jones has been collecting discarded scratch-off lottery tickets from a trash can at the same convenience store in Beebe for more than a year, ever since the store began selling them. In Arkansas, there is a points-for-prizes system in which losing tickets can be redeemed for secondary prizes like magazine subscriptions or toys. Jones would collect the tickets in hopes of getting a soccer ball or basketball for her grandchildren.Ticket is a $118 million winner in Mega Millions
In July, Jones went to punch in a ticket number for a $20 ticket on her home computer and the lottery website rejected it. After trying three times, she called in her husband, William, and the two realized that the numbers on the ticket weren’t fully scratched off. After William scratched off the last number, they realized it was a match for the million-dollar prize.
Her husband scanned the ticket at four different stores, and all of them read that it was the winning ticket. “We were in shock,’’ Jones told Lauer. “I did not believe that it was a million-dollar ticket.’’Video: Heated battle over lottery ticket thrown in trash (on this page)
Jones said she did not speak with a lawyer before she went to collect the prize, and at first didn’t recall how she obtained the ticket.
“She really didn’t know until an investigation was begun, and they saw a video that this ticket that was scanned came out of the trash,’’ Simpson said.
Trash to treasure
The convenience store manager, Lisa Petriches, claimed that had Jones not plucked the ticket from the trash, it would have belonged to Petriches because any discarded tickets in the garbage can would’ve been hers to use for second-hand points. Petriches claims there was a sign warning customers not to take tickets from the trash, but Jones and Simpson claim the sign only went up after the lawsuit was filed. Jones also said she was never told by anyone in the store not to take tickets out of the trash.
Duncan joined the lawsuit in January after the judge said at a hearing that she may be the true owner of the ticket. She testified that the lottery scanner told her she was not a winner, and she would not have discarded the ticket if she had known its worth. The Arkansas Lottery Commission has maintained there were no problems with its equipment, but the judge still ruled in Duncan’s favor.
“I just didn’t think justice was done because, I mean, trash is trash,’’ Jones told NBC News. “I couldn’t believe he went that way.’’
The winnings had come at a fortuitous time for Jones and her husband, because the couple was living paycheck to paycheck. William has been unemployed for nearly a year after being laid off from his construction job, and Sharon had quit her job at a café to take care of her ailing father-in-law. They used some of the money to pay off credit card debt and buy a pickup truck. They also gave $50,000 to one of their children and $30,000 to another, as well as $10,000 to a cousin who has a child with Down’s Syndrome. They were hoping to buy a house with the remainder of the cash.
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Now the legal system will determine whether it all has to be returned. There also is the question of whether legal fees will eat up a chunk of the cash for either side that wins.
“It won’t happen,’’ Simpson said. “We took this case on a contingency. Where we are at this point – the lottery commission has a lot at stake here. They did an investigation and paid the funds to Sharon Jones. We feel confident that it will work out.
“The judgment itself has not even been entered yet. There’s still a little time left to see how it may play out.’’
The attorney for the store clerk, the store owner and Duncan declined comment to NBC News.
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