Telephonist's Mistake Almost Costs Bookmaker Over £250,000

In the bookmaking industry, bets are often placed during telephone calls that last just a few moments and that gives rise to an inevitable risk of human error. In rejecting a punter's claim that he was contractually entitled to six-figure winnings on a horse race, a judge considered the legal consequences of one such mistake.

The punter telephoned an offshore bookmaker with the intention of placing a £1,300 each-way bet on a horse. His total outlay should, on that basis, have been £2,600. The telephone operator, however, erroneously misunderstood his bet and multiplied it by a factor of 10. After the wager was approved by the bookmaker, £26,000 was debited from his account.

When the horse came in first, winnings of £286,000 were automatically credited to the punter's account. However, the bookmaker subsequently reduced that sum to £28,600 on the basis that an error had been made. The punter launched proceedings, asserting that he was entitled to the difference between those two sums – £257,400 – plus interest.

The punter accepted that his original intention had been to wager £2,600. When the operator informed him that 10 times that sum would be taken from his account, he said that he was confident and indicated his agreement after deciding to let matters ride. He argued that he thereby accepted the bookmaker's counter-offer and that his agreed stake was £26,000.

Alternatively, he argued that the operator responded to his offer to stake £2,600 by indicating that the bookmaker would accept a £26,000 bet. He said that he then made a fresh offer to place a bet in the latter sum, which was accepted. However, the bookmaker asserted that, due to the operator's unilateral mistake, the only concluded contract was for a stake of £2,600.

Ruling on the matter, the judge noted that there was no dispute that the punter's original intention was to stake the smaller sum and that the operator had made a mistake. The downward amendment to the punter's winnings reflected the bet for which he had asked and was consistent with the intended basis on which the bookmaker approved the transaction.

Having viewed transcripts of the recorded conversations between the operator and the punter, the judge found that there had been no acceptance of any counter-offer or revised offer. There was thus no contract for the placing of a bet of £13,000 each way. The punter's claim therefore failed in that he had been paid all the winnings that were due to him.