If a lottery system screws up, should the winners who benefited from that screwup win the prize they unwittingly earned?

That’s the question that officials from the South Carolina Education Lottery are currently grappling with after last month producing a whole lot of winning tickets by accident through its Holiday Cash Add-A-Play game. On Christmas day, the game produced thousands of tickets over a two-hour period that produced a winner for each game.

That means that every single ticket, with a maximum cash prize of $500, was suddenly the world’s greatest investment for a little while. It was like Bitcoin with less risk.

However, now that it’s no longer Christmas and the lottery system is in a position to figure out what happened, regulators have been trying to figure out if they have to pay out the roughly $20 million in tickets they unwittingly sold that day.

Fox 46, based in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina, believes, based on an analysis of state law, that the issue is cut-and-dry: The state legally cannot pay out the money because it’s clear that tickets were printed in error.

“It is a no-win situation. If South Carolina Education lottery officials pay out the millions to players who ‘won,’ they would likely be breaking the law,” the station argues in a report. “If they don’t, they could have a lot of angry players to deal with.”

Despite that, the lottery system currently has more than $19 million set aside in case it decides, well, it should probably pay all those people who benefited from the lottery’s screw-up.

Lottery errors appear to be fairly common, though perhaps not at the scale of the South Carolina mishap. Just this week, the Connecticut Lottery revealed that it had mistakenly failed to include 100,000 tickets in a New Year’s drawing, leading the state to do a separate drawing that will let prior ticket-holders play again.

However, a similar error to the one that befell South Carolina actually happened in Virginia about a decade ago, when a programming error led the state’s lottery to print more than 600 winning tickets worth a $7,777 price tag.

In the end, Virginia paid out a quarter of the total to winners.

Ernie Smith
Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.