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Enforceability Of Oral Agreement To Split Lottery Winnings

        Love is forever right?  Well, not necessarily if you’re holding the winning lottery ticket. Last week the Fifth District Court of Appeal issued an opinion in Browning v. Poirier affirming a trial judge’s decision that threw out Mr. Browning’s claim that Ms. Poirier breached the oral contract between them to split the proceeds of a winning million dollar lottery ticket.
The couple were unmarried but had lived together for 18 years. According to Mr. Browning, two years after they began living together, they orally agreed to split all potential lottery winnings for as long as they were romantically
involved. Apparently they played the lottery often and won a few small prizes which they did split. This was, however, until Ms. Poirier’s purchase of the million dollar ticket on June 2, 2007. On that day the couple went to a convenience
store together and stood in line to purchase tickets in separate transactions. Mr. Browning had even given Poirier twenty dollars to purchase her tickets. Unfortunately for Mr. Browning, Ms. Poirier’s batch of tickets contained the
winning numbers and she thereafter refused to split the million dollar proceeds with Browning.
The case turned on the Statute of Frauds, Florida Statute 725.01 which essentially states that in order to enforce an agreement that cannot be performed within one year, that agreement must be in writing and signed by the
party to be charged. The majority opinion in Browning cites to the fact that the evidence at trial was that Browning and Poirier, by all accounts, had intended for their relationship to last indefinitely, and certainly beyond one year. Thus, their agreement to split lottery proceeds should have been in writing. An excellent dissenting opinion, written by Chief Justice Vincent G. Torpy, Jr., forcefully points out that a major exception to the Statute of Frauds is that contracts that can possibly be performed in the space of a year do not have to be in writing. In this case, Judge Torpy reasoned that theoretically the agreement between Browning and Poirier to split their lottery winnings could be performed within a  year because either one of them could have canceled the oral agreement at any time, or worse, one of them could have died.
Note that this case may not be over. The Fifth District Court of Appeal has asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh-in on the issue of whether the Statute of Frauds should apply under the facts of this case. If the Supreme Court decides to address the issue it could be several months before it does so. In the meantime, all is not lost for Mr. Browning. The Fifth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial judge on the issue of whether Ms. Poirier has been “unjustly enriched”  and has sent the case back down to the trial court to determine this issue. In other words, the Court is requiring the trial judge to determine if Mr. Browning conferred a benefit on Ms. Poirier by giving her the money to purchase the winning lottery ticket and whether it is inequitable for Ms. Poirier to refuse to give Browning half, or even some, of her lottery winnings.
From a practical standpoint, the upshot of the Browning opinion – at least until when and if the Florida Supreme Court weighs in – is to put any agreement about splitting lottery proceeds in writing.