Are pokie manufacturers liable for losses?

We're about to learn whether losing punters can sue pokie manufacturers for compensation.

I don’t know about y’all but I’m really enjoying the US Presidential election campaign. It’s the best entertainment going around and sure beats any reality show.

Lost in all the excitement is that Hillary Clinton hopes to make gun manufacturers and retailers liable if guns sold lawfully are subsequently used to commit crimes. This is the equivalent of me being held liable for unwittingly selling a baseball bat to some thug who subsequently beats someone up with it. And Clinton’s supposed to be the non-crazy candidate!

On learning this, readers might think ‘only in America’ but such novel legal theories aren’t limited to the United States. Maurice Blackburn (‘We fight for fair’) is considering launching legal action against Aristocrat Leisure (ASX:ALL) and Crown (ASX:CWN) because one of Aristocrat’s pokie machines is – allegedly – ‘unfair’.

Client Shonica Guy, who’s lost a bundle playing an Aristocrat machine at Crown Melbourne, sums up the case: ‘I thought I had a fair chance of winning, but I found out that they [pokie machines] are rigged…They trick with design features’.

Deceptive?

Ms Guy alleges that Aristocrat lied to players by designing its pokie machines to suggest players have a better chance of winning than in reality.

A pokie machine displays the combinations of symbols needed across the machine's five reels to win various payouts. One part of the alleged ‘deception’ is that there’s an uneven distribution of symbols over the five reels on the machine in question. According to Ms Guy, this implies that winning is harder than the machine suggests.

Another part of the case alleges that the combination of lights, sounds and graphics on the machines also has the effect of misleadingly suggesting players have a better chance of winning than they really do.

It’s an open secret that these features along with regular, albeit small, payouts are designed to keep a player playing so they inevitably lose over the longer term. So, although I’m not a lawyer, perhaps this part of the allegation may have some merit.   

Whither common sense?

However, it only takes a little common sense to realise that the pubs and clubs that own the pokies wouldn’t remain in business for long if you had a ‘fair’ chance of winning. The same goes for lotteries, scratchies and casino games.

These aren't zero-sum games like two-up: the house has an inbuilt advantage that guarantees it wins over the long term. 

In legal jargon, an ordinary, prudent and reasonable man or woman understands they will lose money playing the pokies over the long term. So if they then choose to play them regardless, they can’t subsequently blame others for the inevitable losses. Assuming I’m right, Aristocrat hasn’t engaged in deceptive conduct and so I expect this action to fail.

Of course, the ultimate aim of the action is to eliminate pokies in Australia. I won’t address the merits of this goal but only suggest that it's something for our elected leaders – who admittedly benefit significantly from the taxes levied on pokies – rather than the likes of Maurice Blackburn to determine.

Meanwhile, while we await the legal arguments, I’m going to enjoy the last few weeks of the US Presidential election. It’s more entertaining than any pokie machine.

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Disclosure: the author owns shares in Ainsworth Game Technology because he's an ordinary, prudent and reasonable man (although his colleagues may disagree). 

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