Another Lawsuit Challenges Big Fish and Aristocrat in Washington State
Some states have very clear stances on gambling. In Nevada, almost anything goes. In Utah, no form of gambling is legal, not even the lottery.
The state of Washington, however, is complex. Each of the state’s 29 Native American tribes have some form of gaming compact with the state government. Many tribes offer bingo or pull-tabs, some include slot machines in their casinos, and some even have poker rooms and other table games. There is a lottery from which the state benefits as well.
But there is something about any form of gambling online – even free-play games that require no money – that puts Washington into a panic. Real-money online poker and casino games are crimes, and players and operators alike face criminal charges if caught.
Most offshore sites no longer offer games to residents of Washington. Even PokerStars pulled its free-play gaming from Washington residents last year to protect players from any risk of prosecution, as well as to protect its own reputation in the face of a US market that is opening up in other parts of the country.
Big Fish, however, was not safe, as years of offering free online games to people in Washington had resulted in numerous lawsuits. And they have not stopped.
Big Fish in a Big Legal Pond
A developer of online casino games, Big Fish is based in Seattle and has been since it was founded in 2002. The company was a start-up that grew into one that eventually opened a European office in 2009 and then Vancouver after that. In 2013, however, the company closed its cloud-based services and its foreign offices, and its core business was acquired by Churchill Downs the following year for approximately $885 million. Last year, Churchill Downs unloaded Big Fish to Aristocrat Technologies for $990 million.
When it comes to legal matters, those details matter.
Big Fish has taken the brunt of the backlash from players in Washington who felt wronged by the option to purchase credits in free-play games.
Essentially, play-money games like slots and poker that are available on Facebook and various apps require no money to play. Free chips are given to players in increments so they can play until they lose those chips; then, they must wait – up to hours or even days! – for more free chips. The other option is to pay a few dollars for more chips that allow them to continue playing unimpeded.
One woman spent more than $1,000 on those play-money chips and sued Big Fish under the laws of Washington. Those laws state that “staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance…upon an agreement or understanding that the person or someone else will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.” The something of value turned out to be money for those play-chips, and the something of value to be received was more chips.
That original case was thrown out of a US District Court in 2016, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that those chips were, indeed, something of value, and Big Fish’s play-money games were illegal in the state of Washington.
It was that decision that prompted PokerStars to leave the state.
We’ve received questions about #FreePoker sites denying access to Washington residents. Please read below to learn more. Our agency did not order these sites to deny access to free poker. If you have concerns, please contact the websites directly. pic.twitter.com/idhLg95GGF
— WA Gambling Comm (@WAGambling) April 4, 2018
The Latest Lawsuit
Other lawsuits followed, with former players suing Huuuge Games, Playtika, High 5 Games, and DoubleDown Interactive. All plaintiffs claimed they didn’t have enough play-money chips to compete, so they felt compelled to buy more chips, thus giving those chips value. They spent thousands of dollars in the games and then sued.
The latest one is very similar. Manasa Thimmegowda is the primary plaintiff’s name on a class action lawsuit filed on February 11 in the US District Court for the Western District of Washington. The defendants listed are Big Fish Games, Churchill Downs, Aristocrat Leisure, and Aristocrat Technologies.
According to Washington law, if the matter in controversy exceeds $75,000 and meets other criteria, it can be deemed a class action suit, which this one is. The class is “all persons in the United States who began playing Big Fish Casino or other similar Big Fish Games ‘casino games’ on or after March 24, 2015, and lost purchased chips by wagering at Defendants’ casino games.”
Thimmegowda claims to have lost more than $3,000 on Big Fish Casino mobile app games in one month. She now seeks to “recover her losses” and “seek appropriate relief” because the companies involved broke Washington state law and “illegally profited from tens of thousands of customers.”
Attorney Christopher Dore, who represents Thimmegowda, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “The mobile gaming industry, by design, preys on consumers by bring addictive gambling opportunities directly into their homes.” As mentioned in the complaint, the developers “have begun exploiting the same psychological triggers as casino operators.”
Aristocrat Leisure plans to “vigorously defend” against the plaintiff’s claims.