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October 24, 2014

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LV firm avoids paying disputed jackpot

JACKSON, Miss. -- A year and a half after thinking she was a millionaire casino jackpot winner, an Alabama woman was told by the Mississippi Supreme Court that she is not entitled any money after all.

However, justices said Thursday that the case illustrates problems in the casino system.

Effie Freeman, of Courtland, Ala., has been in a court fight with a slot machine manufacturer over her April 1995 trip to Splash Casino in Tunica, where a machine she was playing showed she won a "Cool Millions" jackpot. Casino officials told her later it was a mistake.

A Tunica County judge ordered the slot maker to pay her the $1.74 million jackpot, but that was overturned by the high court in a 5-2 decision.

Casino Data Systems of Las Vegas, owner of the progressive slot machine, maintained that the machine had jammed up and that Freeman hit two ducks, not the three she thought.

A Gaming Commission officer looked into her claims originally and rejected them. But at trial, Circuit Judge John Leslie Hatcher said the commission violated Freeman's rights by never contacting her or eyewitnesses. Hatcher also said the commission's hearing examiner "unduly stacked the deck against Ms. Freeman."

Although ruling that she did not win the jackpot, Justice Jim Smith criticized the casino's handling of Freeman's situation, saying "there are many procedural errors and several coincidences here that are at least suspicious."

There was no videotape recording of the alleged winning play because it occurred at 5 p.m., when tapes were changed by the casino.

"A back-up system would have prevented this mishap. Because the integrity of the gaming industry is at stake in these types of cases, the Legislature and the (Gaming) Commission should consider amending the statutes or mandating further internal regulations to protect patrons," Smith wrote.

Splash Casino, which has since closed, allowed people to continue playing the machine and did not notify the Gaming Commission about a possible problem.

Justice Chuck McRae, in a dissent, said evidence pointed to the validity of the jackpot.

"All of the persons who witnessed Ms. Freeman's jackpot stated that they heard loud bells ringing from the slot machine, lights were flashing, and three ducks in red, white and blue were lined up on the payoff line. The noise and lights were such that a crowd gathered around the machine," he wrote.

Briggs Smith of Batesville, Freeman's attorney, did not return a phone call Thursday. He has said Casino Data had the responsibility to live up to the contract printed on its slot machine.

Katie Hester, attorney for Casino Data, has said the company had nothing to do with how the casino handled the situation. CDS is responsible for maintenance on the microprocessor computers that randomly select combinations for jackpot winners.

Among the Supreme Court recommendations for the Legislature are:

Requiring casinos to suspend play on a slot machine that is involved in a casino patron dispute until a Gaming Commission agent can investigate.

Mandating that casinos immediately notify the Gaming Commission about a dispute.

Requiring casinos to inform patrons of their rights when there is an apparent dispute.

"We cannot stress enough that patrons are at the mercy of gaming system and the law, and the judicial system is their only current safeguard," Smith wrote.

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