Playing the lottery with co-workers? Set some rules.

The chances of winning Wednesday's $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot may be infinitesimally small, but there's a fair chance chaos will erupt if the winners are co-workers in an office lottery pool.

Going in together on lottery tickets is a morale-boosting tradition in some workplaces, but the camaraderie it builds has been known to collapse when the office pool actually buys the winning ticket.

Take the employees at Pita Pan Bakery in Chicago Heights. A group of 12 workers who claimed the winning ticket in a $118 million Illinois Mega Millions drawing in 2012 were sued by five of their co-workers who argued they should share in the winnings because they regularly contributed to the bakery's rolling pot of lottery money.

In a 2013 case in Indiana, seven employees at Lou's Creative Styles hair salon sued a co-worker who claimed that the winning numbers for the $9.5 million prize belonged to her personal lottery ticket, not the ones she had bought for the office pool at the same time.

The parties in both cases reached confidential settlements.

Such messes are avoidable with a little forethought.

"The No. 1 thing is document, document, document," said Michael LaMonica, a Chicago attorney who represented two of the plaintiffs in the bakery lawsuit.

Employees should create a written document listing everyone who is in the pool and how the winnings will be divided among them, and designate a point person who buys the tickets and makes photocopies to distribute to the participants, LaMonica said. It doesn't have to be a formal document, he added.

Midge Seltzer, an attorney and president of Engage PEO, a human resources outsourcer, said that all employees should pay before purchase of the tickets and sign their names confirming they have done so. They should also agree beforehand whether they will pick set numbers or go for random, and whether they will take a lump sum or annuity if they do win.

While lawsuits have centered around employees, employers could get caught in the crosshairs if managers are involved and appear to be coercing employees to join or, alternatively, excluding people from joining, Seltzer said.

Office lottery pools are not considered illegal gambling because the lottery is legal, said Phillip Schreiber, a partner at Holland & Knight, who represents management in employment cases. But employers can establish policies about employees spending working time putting together lottery pools, he said.

aelejalderuiz@tribpub.com

Twitter @alexiaer

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