Illegal immigrant wins Houston County lottery ticket lawsuit

bpurser@macon.comMarch 9, 2012 

PERRY -- After deliberating only 35 minutes Thursday, a Houston County jury awarded ownership of a $750,000 lottery ticket to an illegal immigrant who claimed he was taken advantage of by the man he had worked for as a day laborer.

Jose Antonio “Tony” Cua-Toc, 27, a native of Guatemala who entered the country illegally in 2000, had filed a lawsuit against Erick Cervantes, a Fort Valley business owner who claimed the winning Jingle Jumbo Bucks lottery ticket from Georgia lottery officials.

Cua-Toc’s winnings after taxes total $517,500, according to his attorneys. A jury also awarded him $207,000 in attorney’s fees, as well as $25,000 in punitive damages.

Cua-Toc purchased the winning ticket Nov. 17, 2010, from the OM Food Mart at 700 Feagin Mill Road in Warner Robins. But because Cua-Toc was undocumented, Erick Cervantes claimed the winnings on Cua-Toc’s behalf but then kept the money. Cervantes had claimed he was the rightful owner of the ticket, having given Cua-Toc $20 to purchase the ticket for him.

Juror Shannon Milanek, a 41-year-old nurse from Warner Robins, said the jury’s verdict came down to surveillance video from the store where the ticket was purchased. The video shows a smiling Cua-Toc raising his hands in the air after the winning ticket is validated by the store owner.

During closing arguments, Charles R. Adams III, of Fort Valley, one of Cua-Toc’s attorneys, had played the video again for jurors. The video also shows Cua-Toc hugging and kissing his girlfriend. He also sends photos of the winning ticket to his friends from his cell phone.

Adams asked jurors while the video played, “Is this the reaction of somebody who bought a ticket for someone else and is going to have to give it to his boss tomorrow?”

The jury did not have any law to go on regarding whether the ticket belonged to the person who purchased it or the person who provided the money to purchase it, Milanek said. Ultimately, jurors decided that the ticket was Cua-Toc’s because he made the purchase, Milanek said.

Kelly Burke, one of the Warner Robins attorneys representing Cervantes, had argued that the civil case heard in Houston County Superior Court was about “Mr. Cua-Toc’s desperate grab to get a hold of some money.”

Adams expressed gratitude for the jury’s verdict.

“Only in America can this sort of justice be done,” Adams said.

Punitive damages

After the verdict, the court recessed for lunch and then returned for the same jury to hear arguments during a separate hearing on the amount to award in punitive damages.

Jeff Lasseter, the other attorney representing Cervantes, sought “compassion” from jurors -- noting testimony during the trial that Cervantes was a generous man and had three children. Lasseter pleaded with jurors not to pile on punitive damages -- noting the verdict was punishment enough and asking jurors to award only $1 in damages.

But Adams asked jurors to send “a definite, sharp message and a lasting reminder not only to Erick Cervantes but to all the Erick Cervanteses everywhere.”

He argued Erick Cervantes and then-wife Sonia Cervantes were living the American dream and spending the lottery ticket winnings while Cua-Toc sat in jail on a falsified terroristic charge. Cua-Toc, who testified during the four-day trial through court interpreter Nancy A. King, denied threatening the Cervantes family.

Adams, who did not ask the jury for a specific amount to be awarded, did detail about $223,000 in lottery revenues that had been spent by Erick and Sonia Cervantes -- including a $41,489 house payment, $47,000 in legal fees to attorneys, a $24,923 van payment, a $43,000 payment to the IRS, a $10,000 gift to the parents of Sonia Cervantes, a $10,000 loan to a friend and other gift amounts to relatives and friends.

Adams told jurors about $300,000 remains of the lottery funds that were frozen by the court Dec. 31, 2010, after the filing of the lawsuit by Cua-Toc against Erick and Sonia Cervantes. Sonia Cervantes was dismissed from the lawsuit during the trial by mutual agreement of attorneys, Burke said.

The aftermath

After the court proceedings, Burke expressed disappointment with the verdict but respect for the jury and the jury system.

He said grounds for appeal are being explored. But Burke also said he has already reached out to Adams about a settlement amount.

Adams said it would be inappropriate to talk about a settlement. Another court hearing is expected to be scheduled on the amount of lottery funds that should be awarded based on Cua-Toc’s attorneys’ estimate of $517,500 after federal taxes compared with the estimate of $460,000 that also includes the deduction of state taxes as estimated by attorneys for Cervantes.

In instructions to jurors for deliberations, Judge George F. Nunn stated that Georgia law does not prohibit the sale of a lottery ticket to a foreign national over the age of 18. Testimony during the trial indicated that Cua-Toc believed he did not have the proper documentation to receive the ticket proceeds on his own.

Cua-Toc, who had been living in Fort Valley after an Atlanta immigration attorney won him the right in September to stay in the country for the civil case, is currently serving 44 days in the Houston County jail on a Jan. 31 drunken driving conviction.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hold was placed against Cua-Toc Jan. 31. Generally, ICE holds are not activated until after adjudication of a local criminal case, which includes sentencing, according to ICE spokesman Vincent Picard.

Cua-Toc was initially jailed Nov. 27, 2010, in Houston County on a terroristic threats charge for allegedly threatening Cervantes and his family. District Attorney George Hartwig previously has stated he does not expect to proceed with the case if Cua-Toc returns to Guatemala. But if Cua-Toc were to remain in the country, Hartwig said, “It’s certainly still on the table. The charges are still pending.”

Hartwig could not be reached immediately late Thursday afternoon for additional comment in light of the jury’s verdict.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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