LAKELAND – A Seminole County judge's ruling over disputed lottery winnings brought some legal definition to the concept of a verbal contract. One Florida attorney, however, believes the case could lead to a troubling precedent.
"Unfortunately, this allows a jury (such as occurred here) to award a plaintiff money even though there is little proof of their claims," Mark Sessums, the Lakeland attorney who represented the losing side in this case, told the Florida Record. "Lawsuits should be based on claims that have some objective validity – we will have more frivolous claims now."
The case involved Lynn Porier, a former teacher in Seminole County, and her ex-boyfriend, Howard Browning. In 2008, Browning sued Porier over a Florida lottery scratch-off ticket, which won Porier a $1 million jackpot. Browning claimed that he paid for the ticket and that the two agreed to split the money as long as they were together. Porier claimed that she purchased the ticket herself after the two had broken up, and that the agreement Browning says occurred had a crucial caveat.
"Mr. Browning claimed that the parties’ alleged oral agreement was only effective as long as they were 'together,'– they were not together at the time the winning ticket was purchased. Mr. Browning had a long-time girlfriend and was merely a squatter in Ms. Porier’s home," Sessums said.
The case was thrown out by the Seminole County Court in 2012, but Browning appealed the case to the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida high court sent the case back to Seminole County, ruling that it needed to be heard there. In February, a jury ruled that Porier and Browning did have a vocal contract, and that Browning was entitled to $219,000.
For his part, Sessums is as concerned about the precedent of the state Supreme Court's decision as the negative outcome of the case for his client. He cited that the court uses a statute of frauds, with language adopted wholesale from the British Parliament. He said the statute is intended to prevent people from claiming an oral agreement after the fact.
"This is exactly what Mr. Browning claimed – we agreed to share in lottery winnings years and years ago," Sessums said. "No proof of this oral agreement existed other than his testimony that Ms. Porier denied."
He believes the legal precedent of basically eliminating the statute of frauds could lead to an increase in what he called "he said/she said lawsuits."
As for the case itself, it will likely result in a "nobody wins" ending.
Sessums told the Florida Record that Porier is declaring bankruptcy rather than continue to incur legal costs associated with the ruling. If the plan is approved by the federal bankruptcy court, Browning would not receive anything from the ruling.
For Sessums, that at least gives the case a sense of schadenfreude that makes the bad ending easier to swallow.
"At least this is some justice that Mr. Browning and his lawyer, Sean Shepard, will receive nothing for years of harassing Ms. Porier," he said.