ABC News’ Lauren Sher and Christina Ng report:
An Arkansas woman who found a $1 million lottery ticket in the trash has to return the winnings to the woman who bought the ticket but threw it away, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Sharon Duncan, who originally bought the lottery ticket in July 2011 at a convenience store in Bebee, Ark., is entitled to the money. Sharon Jones, who found the winning ticket in a trash bin of discarded lottery tickets, is out of luck, according to the judge.
An attorney for Jones, James Simpson, argued in court that the ticket was the equivalent of abandoned property and was the property of the possessor – essentially finder’s keepers.
In an interview with ABC News, Simpson said he was disappointed and “a little surprised” by the judge’s ruling.
“There’s no case law in Arkansas that deals with situations, the lottery is somewhat new here … disappointed but we respect the decision at this time, but that’s why the legal process is what it is,” he said. “And the trial judge made his findings, and we have a right to let the law play out with the facts as we know them to be. We’re confident that it’ll all work out.”
Duncan said in court that she only discarded the ticket because the store ticket scanner mistakenly said it was a loser.
White County judge Thomas Hughes sided with Duncan, ruling that Jones’ possession of the ticket didn’t mean that Duncan had abandoned her right to claim the $1 million prize.
“We are very happy about our victory,” Duncan’s attorney, James “Red” Morgan told ABC News. “It will take us more than a year to collect the money, but we are happy.”
Jones’ attorney said his client plans to appeal Tuesday’s ruling. The $680,000 in prize money, after taxes were deducted, was frozen earlier this year pending the court case.
Jones says she’d already spent some of the money in the month she had the winnings, buying a truck, paying off credit cards and giving cash to her children.
The legal battle over the $1 million ticket first began between Jones and the Super 1 Stop store manager, Lisa Petriches.
Jones told ABC that she has been taking discarded tickets from the store for years. She gathers them to register on the lottery commission’s website in the “Points for Prizes” program, where people can submit non-winning tickets for reward points and earn prizes in their area.
She said she just wanted to earn presents for her grand-children, and never thought she would win the jackpot with a ticket she removed from the store’s trash in July of last year.
Jones said she was unable to enter the number for one ticket in particular, a $20 Diamond Dazzler scratch-off.
“I kept trying to enter it, I tried three times, it kept kicking them out. I called my cousin, he kept saying it was a winner and that was why it wouldn’t take it, so on July 18 I took it to the lottery office, signed the back of the ticket, cashed it in, they wrote me a check for it,” she said..
Jones turned in the ticket and received a check for $680,000. After the check was issued, the lottery commission began the process of confirming all winning tickets and in the course of the investigation, surveillance footage showed Jones grabbing a handful of discarded tickets from the trash bin.
After seeing the footage, the store manager claimed that customers were not allowed to take tickets from the bin and that those tickets belonged to her.
A month after Jones collected her check, Petriches filed a lawsuit against her, claiming that the winning ticket was hers. Petriches also claimed that there was a “Do Not Take” sign on the bin, but Jones disputes that claim.
The judge in Tuesday’s hearing ruled that Petriches and the store’s owner, Summer One LLC, which had joined the suit, had no claim to the winnings.
Sharon Duncan didn’t enter the legal equation until January when she claimed that she was the one who originally purchased the ticket and that the jackpot was rightfully hers.
Simpson believes his client will end up keeping the money when all the proceedings are over.
“The end goal is that Sharon Jones receive the proceeds because she picked up a discarded, abandoned ticket, and she’s the lucky fighter, and we believe that the laws will show in the long run that the ticket, the claim, the money, that was all abandoned … ,” he said.
ABC News’ Sabina Ghebremedhin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.