For about an hour last August, Gary Hoffman was a very lucky man.
Hoffman was playing the nickel slot machines at the Sandia Resort and Casino on an Indian reservation in New Mexico when he appeared to hit the jackpot: the machine said he won nearly $1.6 million.
"I became ecstatic," he said.
But the ecstasy was short-lived. Hoffman says in a lawsuit filed earlier this year that Sandia refused to pay, claiming that the machine malfunctioned. Instead, he said, they gave him about $385 and a few free meals at the casino.
"I won money, fair and square, and I've been cheated out of my winnings," Hoffman told ABC News.
The casino says it's not responsible for what it describes as a computer error and says it offered Hoffman the maximum payout of $2,500 for that particular slot machine. But, a jury may never decide who is right. Lawyers told ABC News that gamblers like Hoffman may have little legal recourse against Native American casinos, which sometimes operate beyond the reach of U.S. courts.
Hoffman, a retired Albuquerque city employee, was playing a "Mystical Mermaid" slot machine on the morning of Aug. 16, 2006, when he thought he hit it big.
The nickel slot said he'd won $1,597,244.10. Patrons and casino employees came to congratulate him. He even got a marriage proposal, Hoffman said. But, soon he was asked to come to an executive conference room, where he says he was told the casino refused to pay.
A casino employee "became quite intimidating with me, pointed his finger in my face and said, 'You didn't win. We're not paying you any money. Do you understand what I'm telling you? You're not getting any money,'" Hoffman said.
A technician from the slot machine manufacturer arrived at the casino within the hour and the casino cordoned off the machine.
"I was a winner and I walked out empty handed," Hoffman said.
A technical report said the slot machine's computer malfunctioned, and incorrectly made it appear as if Hoffman won more than the machine is able to pay out. The slot machine has a disclaimer that says it pays a maximum of $2,500 and warns that malfunctions void all winnings, said Paul Bardacke, Sandia's lawyer.
The technical report, prepared for the casino by Gaming Laboratories International, showed that the machine's memory malfunctioned, causing the slot to treat a losing spin as a winner -- what the report called an "erroneous jackpot." The machine manufacturer, International Gaming Technology, blamed the problem on a software program.
Bardacke said Sandia offered Hoffman the maximum payout of $2,500.
"If he had gone into a bank and deposited $1,000 and got back a deposit slip that said a million dollars, he doesn't get to keep the balance," said Bardacke. "It doesn't work that way."
"He knew it was wrong; he knew it was incorrect," Bardacke said of the "jackpot." "That's why he took a picture of it immediately."
Hoffman appealed through the tribe's internal review process but lost. Then he took the casino to court.
Jeremy Kleiman, the vice chairman of the commercial gaming subcommittee of the American Bar Association, said that courts normally look at the player's expectations when deciding disputes about gambling.