Ontario’s problem gamblers launch class action suit

Posted By BY BOB MIHELL, June 24, 2008

A Toronto law firm has filed a multi-billion dollar class action suit against the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation on behalf of compulsive gamblers in Ontario.

The June 9 Statement of Claim on behalf of the plaintiffs alleges that the Defendant, the OLG, was negligent and in breach of contract for failing to deny problem gamblers entry to gaming venues operated by the OLG.

It is alleged the gamblers had signed "Self-Exclusion" agreements with the crown corporation between Dec. 1, 1999 and Feb. 10, 2005, but were "nonetheless permitted entry to one or more of the Gambling Venues after signing the Self-Exclusion Contract"

OLG operates 10 casinos in Ontario, including Casino Sault Ste. Marie. They also operate slot machines at 21 other horse race tracks throughout the province where the self-exclusion agreements apply.

Hassan Fancy, a member of the legal team handling the class action suit for the gamblers said Friday that the self-exclusion agreement represented clearly a contract.

He said that a judge, Madam Justice Ellen MacDonald, had held already, "It does create obligations on the part of OLG to deny entry to those addicted gamblers. But this is not simply a matter of Justice MacDonald agreeing with our position that this is a contract."

He noted that OLG had made an offer; there were requests from gamblers to honour that offer; and there was acceptance of the agreement by OLG to fulfill its obligation by gathering personal information and taking photographs of those persons.

"If it looks like, feels like, smells like, and tastes like a contract, then it is a contract," he said.

Fancy said that compulsive gamblers who had signed self-exclusion contracts with the OLG, but were still allowed entry to OLGC gaming venues, could access information and register for possible inclusion in the class action suit at the following website: www.problemgamblerslawyer.com.

But Don Pister, spokesperson for OLG, declined to comment on the specific allegations in the Statement of Claim filed against OLG. "We’re reviewing the Statement of Claim carefully, but we cannot comment in any way while it is before the courts. We can tell you we do take the issue of self-exclusion very seriously, and we have for sometime," he said. "If the court certifies the class action suit to proceed, the next step in the procedure, we would look forward to the opportunity to present our Statement of Defence at that time."

Pister preferred instead to stress the positive steps OLG has taken since 2000 that include formal agreements or understandings with a variety of external organizations to promote healthy gambling as part of OLG’s ongoing commitment.

Some of those organizations are the Responsible Gambling Council, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Ontario Responsible Gambling Research Centre, and the Ontario Problem Gambling Helpline.

He added that extensive information about OLG’s commitment to promote healthier gambling was available on the corporation’s website at olg.ca.

He also noted that OLG has reinvested a sizeable amount of its revenue to help prevent and treat problem gambling.

According to the Canadian Gambling Digest, an annual report on gambling compiled by the Canadian Partnership for Responsible Gambling, in 2006/2007, the most recent statistics available, OLG gave $36.7 million in revenue for awareness, research and treatment of problem gambling. In percentage terms that placed Ontario second among the 10 provinces, at two per cent, in distributing revenue toward problem gambling.

Pister described the self-exclusion "program" offered by OLG as "a voluntary self-help tool for people who want to take a break or step back from their own gaming activity. Through the signing of this agreement, they’re formally requesting our help," he said.

"I don’t accept that it doesn’t work," Pister added. "It certainly does work. There have been times that a self-excluded person has been identified and denied access or even issued a trespass notice."

He could not, however, confirm whether or not that had happened at the Sault Ontario Casino.

Pister said about the self-exclusion program: "The promise we make is to do our best to assist, and if we do identify them we will escort them out of the facility to help them fulfill the goal that they stated, which is wanting to stay out."

But Fancy described the existing self-exclusion system as so "archaic" that OLG said they couldn’t even provide a list of names of people who signed self-exclusion agreements.

"Literally, they have physical binders with self-exclusion forms and pictures pasted to them. They said it was too tedious to count it up," Fancy said. However, he said, "We are going to get information from OLG. They have these names, the faces, the addresses of the people who self-excluded," he said. "If need be we will take them to court to compel them to produce the information under the rules of litigation."

Fancy pointed out that there existed already superior systems offering face recognition technology available to OLG.

He said also that Holland had adopted a simple but effective system requiring gaming patrons to produce a card that was swiped by staff to either allow or deny entry.

He said OLG was aware of these alternatives as well, because they had issued a request for proposal for new technology to identify problem gamblers two weeks before his law firm launched its class action suit.

While Pister confirmed that OLGC was looking at new enhanced ID systems, he said the timing had nothing to do with the recent litigation.

Fancy said that the overall goals of the class action suit were to "compensate these people for the millions extracted from them over the years by gaming venues, to bring attention to this very serious matter, and to modify OLG’s behaviour."