A Legal Gamble : Woman Suing Lottery Commission for $3 Million Bets Wheels of Justice Turn Into a Wheel of Fortune

Times Staff Writer

More than three years after Doris Barnett watched her chance at a $3-million California Lottery prize spin away, her hopes still ride on the bounce of a ball.

For one heart-stopping moment on Dec. 30, 1985, Barnett stared as the prize ball she had launched around a giant wheel in the California Lottery’s weekly Big Spin contest landed in the $3-million slot.

Seconds later, the ball popped out of the $3-million slot and into the $10,000 slot, and the Big Spin’s master of ceremonies nervously tapped Barnett on the back. “Doris,” she heard him say, “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. . . .”

What had occurred in the intervening seconds--captured from several camera angles on a production studio videotape--has become the focus of a lawsuit that got under way Tuesday in a county courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. In a case that hinges on an interpretation of gaming rules and on how long the prize ball sat in the $3-million slot on the Big Spin wheel, Barnett has taken on the state Lottery Commission in a second attempt at winning the elusive grand prize.


Lawyers for the state contend that under lottery regulations, Barnett could have only won $10,000 because the ball did not stay long enough in the $3-million slot. But her attorneys claim that the state has played fast and loose with its own rules, rarely adhering to their lottery regulations until Barnett appeared to win the Big Spin’s grand prize.

“The basic issue is what happened to the ball as the wheel came to a stop,” Superior Court Judge Robert B. Lopez told prospective jurors Tuesday during jury selection proceedings. “The plaintiff says she won $3 million. The state states that it was $10,000.”

Doris Barnett has never doubted that she is a $3-million winner. The 54-year-old hospital nurse says she refused to cash the $10,000 check she was sent by state officials after her failure to win the grand prize.

“I didn’t win that (the $10,000),” Barnett insisted outside the courtroom. “I won $3 million.”


Barnett said she began psyching herself up for the big event soon after she bought a qualifying Big Spin ticket at a grocery store near her Southwest Los Angeles house in early December, 1985.

Life as a Millionaire

The thought of winning the Big Spin set Barnett to fantasizing about life as a millionaire. Her first thoughts were for using the money to return to school and upgrading her nursing license, sending her daughters to college and paying for better medical treatment for her blind and ailing mother.

By the day of the Big Spin, Barnett admits that she was so nervous, “I was shaking.” Dressed in her finest dress, Barnett arrived at KTTV studios in Los Angeles with her two daughters. They sat in the audience, holding up banners that read: “Go, Mom, Go!” and “Win the $3 Million, Mama!”

Barnett was the 18th contestant to take a spin on the wheel. The man in line before her, convinced he was a loser, whispered to her: “It doesn’t look like I’m going to make it.” He walked out to the wheel and spun a $3-million winner.

‘A Lucky Spot’

Barnett went to the same side of the wheel as the winner who preceded her. “I figured that was a lucky spot,” she said.

She spun, and her last sight of the ball was as it bounced into the $3-million slot while the wheel slowed. “I heard the emcee say, ‘You’re another $3-million winner,’ ” Barnett recalled.


Barnett said she “just tensed up” and “tuned everything else out.” Other reports at the time portrayed Barnett as jumping up and down with excitement.

But over the span of a few fateful seconds, the Big Spin prize ball suddenly popped out of the $3-million slot and into the $10,000 slot. Barnett said that lottery officials whisked her offstage, telling her that she had won only $10,000.

Preliminary Statement

Although Norman Peek, the deputy attorney general representing the Lottery Commission, declined to discuss the case, the state argued in a preliminary statement that lottery rules make it clear Barnett could only win $10,000:

“Just as the wheel came to a stop, the ball dropped into the $10,000 segment,” state lawyers argued in the statement. At that moment, Harold Diaz, the lottery drawing official on hand during Barnett’s spin, “commenced timing the amount of time the ball was in the $10,000 slot, and that exceeded the requisite five seconds under the rules . . . therefore, Mrs. Barnett was awarded the prize of $10,000.”

But Barnett’s lawyers, Lawrence Sperber and David B. Shapiro, insist that lottery officials had rarely abided by those rules in earlier Big Spins. Instead, Sperber and Shapiro claim, Big Spin contestants were often declared winners by the show’s master of ceremonies without any timing or oversight by lottery drawing officials--sometimes naming a winner even before the wheel stopped spinning.

‘No Verification’

“We’ve reviewed dozens of videotapes of Big Spins and in mostly every case, there was no verification by a lottery official before the emcee announced a winner,” Sperber said. “But when Doris Barnett wins $3 million, the rules they never lived by suddenly become an issue.”


And although state officials have contended that the prize ball spun by Barnett was in the $3-million slot no longer than three seconds, Barnett’s lawyers insist that different video camera angles of the disputed spin suggest several different time spans--ranging from 2 1/2 up to five seconds. Sperber and Shapiro said they planned to show the Superior Court jury several of those videotapes to prove their point.

Lopez promised prospective jurors that they would observe an “interesting and entertaining case.” He urged them to “keep your eye on the ball.”