Australian court dismisses case against Crown over slot machine design

SYDNEY (Reuters) - An Australian court on Friday dismissed a suit accusing Crown Resorts Ltd, the biggest listed casino operator outside China, and slot machine maker Aristocrat Leisure Ltd of giving gamblers misleading information on chances of winning.

The ruling, on grounds of lack of specific evidence, is a small but high-visibility win for Crown, controlled by billionaire James Packer, which has battled unproven claims of poker machine fixing and encouraging problem gambling at its flagship Melbourne casino.

Australian regulators have said they would investigate the claims, which Crown denies.

A Federal Court judge said Shonica Guy, who described herself as a former gambling addict, had raised important questions about how casinos treat problem gamblers but failed to prove the defendants’ misleading or unconscionable conduct.

“My findings ... do not diminish the tragedies involved in the accounts given by Ms Guy and the other lay witnesses,” the judge, Debra Mortimer, wrote.

“However...most of this evidence was not specific enough to contribute to proving the allegations made.”

A spokeswoman for Crown had no immediate comment.

Guy was “grateful for the opportunity to have had my day in court on behalf of all Australians who have been hurt by the pokies,” she said in a statement issued by her law firm.

The firm, Maurice Blackburn, said it was “proud that our case has been able to play a role in the conversation we must continue to have” about problem gambling, but did not say if it would renew action in the courts.

Crown is especially reliant on keeping a positive reputation in Australia since the jailing of more than a dozen of its staff in China, for selling gambling holidays there, prompted it to quit all offshore interests and focus on its home market.

Guy had not sought damages but wanted instead court-ordered declarations that Crown and Aristocrat engaged in misleading conduct and a ban on a certain slot machine in its current configuration.

The filing said a slot machine called Dolphin Treasure at Crown’s Melbourne casino suggested its five “reels” had the same number of characters but one column had substantially more, lowering a gambler’s chance of a win.

But a reasonable gambler would get a realistic idea of the chances of winning “as soon as she or he actually starts gambling and the randomness of the operation of the machine and the returns become apparent”, Justice Mortimer wrote.

While Guy’s evidence was credible, she added, “the absence of specific evidence from individuals claiming to have been exploited or victimized during gambling sessions at Crown Casino because of the identified features of the Dolphin Treasure (machine) substantially affected the strength of the applicant’s case”.

In a statement, Aristocrat said it welcomed the decision and would continue backing “balanced and fact-based harm minimisation initiatives”.

Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Clarence Fernandez