Betting shops are under the dram shop microscope

June 19, 2023 1:56 PM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports
June 19, 2023 1:56 PM
  • Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports

Recently, a hearing in the office of the coroner in Leicester, England, was an inquiry into the death of Luke Ashton. Luke took his own life on April 22, 2021. He had a long history of gambling and had lost £5,000 the month before he died after struggling with his apparent addiction for years. Ashton had chosen to self-exclude in 2013, 2014, and 2016. It is said that Luke sometimes gambled as many as 100 times a day on minor sporting events. He was 40 years old and had a wife and two children.

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The case is becoming very high profile, particularly when the government in England is considering a new round of regulations. Financial background checks for gamblers, restrictions on the amount that can be wagered, and the frequency of betting are being discussed. The regulations are targeted more at slot machine players than sports gamblers, but would include all categories of gambling.

The case is important for another reason. The bookmaker Flutter, through its subsidiary Betfair, has been identified as a “person of interest” and summoned to the hearing. Betfair admits it should have detected a risk, but said it fully complies with the existing laws. Betfair claimed it used algorithms that might be outdated, given that it did not see any danger in Ashton’s gambling. The model was designed to detect customer behavior that is similar to those who have, in the past, self-excluded. It is supposed to lock the account for a period of six months.

While admitting overlooking Ashton’s risky behavior, Betfair’s testimony does not explain the system’s failure. Nor will it be enough to satisfy Ashton’s family or Parliament. Certainly in the United States, the family would seek a civil judgment and significant compensation. It is also highly likely that the case will lead to legislation meant to protect at-risk people and hold the bookmaker accountable. Accountability will probably include large fines and the risk of loss of licensure.

In the United States, laws govern the sale of alcohol to someone who is intoxicated and injures another person. They are generally termed “overserve” or “dram-shop” laws. According to Wikipedia: “Dram-shop liability refers to the body of law governing the liability of taverns, liquor stores, and other commercial establishments that serve alcoholic beverages. The laws vary by state, but the establishment and occasionally the server can be held liable. It can lead to both criminal and civil judgments. The laws were spurred by deaths caused by drunken drivers. At the height of the movement, a national organization of mothers sought to highlight the harm drunken drivers did. It sometimes only took one really egregious case before legislation was passed holding the serving establishment as well as the driver accountable.”

The laws led to changes in policy in establishments that sell alcohol. It is a serious liability and the money earned selling the alcohol hardly justifies the risk.

The death of Luke Ashton is not unlike those where an inebriated driver injures or kills someone. Clearly, Ashton had gambled too much and his death caused serious damage to his wife, children, and anyone else who depended on him in any way. They are the collateral damage of his behavior, in the same way as anyone injured in an accident caused by an intoxicated driver.

Suicide among out-of-control gamblers is not unknown. The number of suicides is less than the thousands of deaths annually from drunk driving. Still, there are enough to garner headlines and sympathy. Public attitude toward both excessive drinking and gambling has changed a great deal over time. At one time, the drinker or the gambler was held completely and exclusively accountable. They were said to lack character, personal discipline, and willpower. Now, the responsibility is often spread over several causes and people. Both are also often described as being a disease or medical condition. In those cases, the individual is seen as a victim of the disease.

Whether the fault was his, a disease, or even Betfair and its algorithms, Ashton is dead. He may have had other concerns, but given the amount of gambling he did, gambling was certainly at the top of his list of problems. The behavior not only destroyed his life, but it also completely upset the lives of his family. His wife testified, “He did not want to die. He had everything he wanted. The only thing he didn’t want was the pain and harm from gambling.”

Though Betfair attempted to suggest that Ashton had mental problems long before his gambling issues surfaced, Clare Gerada, president of the Royal College of GPs, who specializes in addiction issues, told the inquest that Ashton was suffering from a “longstanding and pervasive gambling disorder” and not depression.

Luke Ashton’s death points to the seriousness of the case; addiction can be a life-and-death issue. It also has a much wider social impact than just one person’s life. Regardless of the outcome of this hearing, the world of bet takers is being put on notice. Like dram shops, betting shops in the future will probably be held at least partially liable for any damage an out-of-control gambler may inflict. The price of that liability will differ in every jurisdiction, but it will likely be significantly higher than the revenue gained by accepting the wagers.

Bookies beware. You are under the dram-shop microscope.