Ulysses Contracts and a $3.5-billion Gamble

The Globe and Mail recently featured a story on Peter Aubrey Dennis of Markham, Ontario, who – along with 10,428 other individuals – is suing the Ontario Lottery and Gaming (OLG) Corporation for $3.5-billion in “djokeramages for negligence, occupiers’ liability and breach of contract arising from its failure to deny them entry to gambling venues…”. The contract which Dennis claims the OLG was in breach of, was a “self-exclusion form” which permitted himself to be “charged with trespassing if he entered any of the OLG’s [27] casinos or gambling venues…After he self-excluded [May 24, 2004], Mr. Dennis reportedly returned to Casino Rama and Woodbine Racetrack hundreds of times without being detected and without using any disguises…”

This form is referred to as a “Ulysses Contract” (or pact).  A Ulysses contract (sometimes referred to as an advanced directive in end-of-life care) is made by an individual when they are in a legally competent state of mind and when they are presumed to have requisite capacity to make informed decisions about their future, which at that time they may be in an incapacitated mental state and not able to make  decisions in their best interest  (follow the link above for the origins of the term). Ulysses contracts have had considerable debate in psychiatry, and only recently has some bioethics literature examined its role in addiction.  So, because of the considerable harms gambling had brought to himself and his family, Mr. Dennis decided to bar himself from entering a casino or gaming venue in the future.

As the article states,

“‘I could not stop myself from the gambling,’ Mr. Dennis states in his affidavit filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. ‘It consumed me.’ So severe was his compulsion to gamble that when his eldest son was injured and required a hospital visit, Mr. Dennis instead went to play the slot machines…Mr. Dennis gambled $500,000 from 2001 to May 23, 2004 according to court documents…”

Mr. Dennis’ situation raises several issues. Aside from the legal and ethical issues described here – whether the OLG acted negligently in failing to prohibit Mr. Dennis from entering OLG venues – it also raises the debate to whether gambling is akin to other addictions such as problematic cocaine use, or conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, behaviours such as compulsive shopping, or impulse-control disorders, such as kleptomania. Some recent studies have investigated shared genetic contributions to pathological gambling, others have examined cognitive psychological factors, and others have focused the brain’s reward circuitry. Will an increased biological understanding of gambling help mitigate responsibility for problematic behaviours? Or, will it justify the use of coercive interventions – e.g., sign this Ulysses contract or go to jail…?