She struck it rich with a $1 million lotto jackpot almost a decade ago, then got stuck in legal limbo when her ex-beau claimed he was entitled to half.
A fourth trial on the fate of the lottery cash has wrapped up Thursday in Sanford, Florida, where a jury deliberated for four hours to put a period on the drawn-out and costly civil litigation. (The couple’s row went all the way to the state Supreme Court before getting kicked back to where the saga began, in Seminole County.)
Today, jurors decided that Lynn Poirier, a schoolteacher, wasn’t justified in keeping her fortune and is on the hook to shell out $291,000 plus interest to former handyman lover Howard Browning, backing his beef that he was robbed of his fair share.
Dogging the proceedings during the four-day trial was the mystery elephant in the courtroom: just how much is left of the $750,000 (the final sum minus the taxes) that Poirier collected back in 2007?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Browning’s attorney, Sean Sheppard, told The Daily Beast. “Here we are, nine years down the road, and that’s the big question: Is there anything left?”
After the verdict came down Sheppard remained confident there’s plenty of unspent cash. “They fought really hard to avoid this position and we think there’s something there to collect,” he said. Browning, now 62 years old, says he’s in the poorhouse and has been forced to live at his parents’ house. “He’s been left devastated because he hasn’t had his half of the money,” Sheppard said.
On Wednesday the retired 62-year-old teacher testified there was no such deal to divvy up their lottery riches. “Never under any condition, any place, anywhere did I say I would split lottery winnings with Howard Browning,” said Poirier.
Up until today’s decision the civil case has been a slog. It was initially dismissed in 2012 over a judge’s determination that any lottery agreement had to be in writing to be valid.
That cleared Poirier of wrongdoing. Then a Fifth District court reversed that decision to side with Browning, who in a 2009 amended complaint had accused his former flame of “engaging in conduct that amounts to stealing, larceny...fraud or deception...when she improperly and unlawfully obtained and carried away the winning lottery ticket that belonged in part to [him].”
The district court decision allowed the case to be heard before the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee, which supported the reversal last year but also sent the case back to be tried again in Seminole County.
The first day of the latest trial was Monday and by 4 p.m. today the jury sided with Browning. “We felt the longer they deliberated the better chance we had,” Shepperd said.
Because of the lapsed years since the first lawsuit was filed in 2008, Browning’s fourth round in court may amount to playing legal roulette—because even with a victorious outcome, he may only get squat.
“She had to pay an attorney hourly and after all of the trials and appeals I would be shocked if it wasn’t a six-figure bill ... deep six figures,” Sheppard said.
When asked if Poirier, also 62, has burned through the money, her attorney, Mark Sessums, couldn’t say. “I think they both incurred substantial legal fees but I can’t get into the amounts,” he said.
Nobody disputes that Poirier bought a “Millionaire Firecracker Raffle” lottery ticket on June 2, 2007, late at night at a Sunoco gas station convenience store in Oviedo, Florida. In fact, both she and Browning each bought $20 tickets that very night. Browning has submitted bank records showing he withdrew $400 cash from his account just before he bought his ticket.
Yet only Poirier’s hit.
While who bought the golden ticket isn’t in dispute, some other details of that night are.
For instance, during a March 23, 2010, deposition, Poirier said she “was on my way from my mother’s house to Millwee Middle School,” where she worked, and which is in Longwood, Florida.
She said she pit-stopped at the Sunoco gas station to fill up and buy the ticket “with my own money.”
But if this is true, then she was heading to school and stopped to purchase the ticket at around 10 p.m. on June 2, 2007—the first day of summer break, which also happened to be a Saturday.
“There’s no way a teacher is going to school at 10 o’clock or on her way from school on a Saturday to buy a lottery ticket,” Sheppard said.
Poirier’s lawyer Sessums says that’s not a smoking gun.
He counters that Poirier had been “working on her lesson plan” for the upcoming school year and routinely kept odd hours so the late Saturday night wasn’t special. “She had been at school that evening till about 8 or 8:30 and then had gone to dinner alone,” he said, of her stag meal at Sonny’s BBQ. “Then she went to the Sunoco and bought her ticket, and walked out as Howard [Browning] was coming in.
“Somebody’s not telling the truth,” Sessums said.
Also under scrutiny is whether the couple were actually a couple at the time of the lotto ticket purchase; and what the exact terms were of the alleged verbal agreement they’d forged back when they got together in 1992.
That was when Howard Browning, a former city worker, had convinced Poirier to hire him to work on a century-old farm home she’d bought in Lake Geneva, Florida.
Browning initially started accepting payments for making repairs. But once they began their romance, he bartered with Poirier to permit him to live in the home—which housed numerous animals she cared for, including rabbits and pigs—in exchange for performing maintenance, and plumbing and construction work.
Each played the lottery religiously. And given they both had the Lady Luck bug—even driving to North Carolina and Georgia to try to get rich—they decided to join forces.
There was also an agreement.
At least, Browning testified there was, at one of the appeal trials back in 2013. It made sense, he said, that “since we were buying tickets that we would go in and buy them together and we would play together and that if we win we would split the money.”
However, in a March 23, 2010, deposition, Poirier said there was never any “agreement any kind to buy any lottery tickets and jointly share any money from them at any time, in any state, in any place.”
It didn’t help that their romantic flame apparently dimmed.
Poirier, according to Sessums, hadn’t been living with Browning for years by the time she bought the golden ticket and stressed that they weren’t intimate when she picked the winner. “The last time they had sexual relations was back in 2003, to put it bluntly,” he said.
And, according to Sessums, they had both moved on to other partners: Browning was dating a woman named Debbie Swaitkowski and Poirier was planning to wed a man from Arkansas named Michael Jenkins.
“He was already involved with another woman when she won the ticket,” Sessums said, and pointed out that Poirier was “wearing an engagement ring.” That meant even if they had some sort of lottery split, it was clearly null once they went their separate ways, he said.
“They each were involved with other people, so their agreement [from] 14 years before wasn’t effective,” Sessums said.
But Browning says he and Poirier remained lovers long after the lotto ticket purchase. “Poirier finally returned to [their] shared residence and resumed living with Browning. Their romantic relationship continued,” the civil lawsuit’s complaint states.
Browning’s lawyer said the pair “continued to have sex that very night” and that Poirier continued to “have sex with him up until 2008, when he started asking her to ‘pay me half.’”
The homeowner then allegedly sought to evict Browning for being a shoddy fix-it man who was also love-scorned. But Sessums suggests he was simply a sore loser when he lodged a lawsuit.
“Eventually this house got knocked down—not only did the house get into such deplorable shape that she stopped going there, and their relationship fell apart,” Sessums said, describing the 2008 stalemate. “There were rabbits in the house … All the interior walls were turned out, there were wires hanging and floorboards missing.”
Browning’s attorney says the house was hopeless and too tall an order for a handyman to handle in his spare time. “What this house needed was a general contractor and $150,000 with 10 guys on the job for 18 months but instead she had this guy do it bit by bit.”
Poirier apparently managed to keep the lotto prize secret for over a month and was allegedly ducking Browning by relocating to her mother’s home.
“Browning made numerous attempts to contact Poirier by telephone, however, Poirier refused to either accept or return his phone calls,” according to the original civil complaint filed against Poirier back on Jan. 22, 2008.
Browning says it wasn’t until Poirier pulled up to his driveway in a brand new Chevy pickup that he realized something was up. “It was then that he put two and two together,” his attorney Sheppard said. “He said, ‘We both won and where’s my half of the money?’”
Not so, Poirier’s lawyer Sessums said. “Eventually she comes by the house she owns because she has animals to feed there. They run into each other and they talk about it.”
Sessums claimed that the two had each come into money before the $1 million ticket and didn’t make any hay about it.
Browning received a $78,000 wrongful termination lawsuit against the city of Winter Springs, Florida, in the early 1990s when he and Poirier became intimately involved.
Sessums said “he didn’t give her any part of that money.”
Same goes for when Browning scored a Ford Mustang in another lotto drawing. When he hocked the car, Sessums said, “he kept that money for himself.”
But Browning’s camp feels Poirier reneged on a promise. “He thought she would honor this agreement and since then he has barely been keeping his head above water,” Sheppard said. “He’s 60 years old. He’s not a young guy.”
“It’s not something you’re going to walk away from after all this time,” he added, before the rendered verdict. “We’re confident we will prevail but we just have to see what’s at the end of the rainbow.”
While six jurors have decided in favor of the former handyman, what remains is whether there’s a pot of gold to split…or thin air.