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On The Merits

Caddy Smack

The PGA Tour is a billion-dollar business led by recovering-attorney-turned-commissioner Tim Finchem. Based on its affiliations with several charities, the Tour operates as a non-profit entity, which ensures millions of dollars in tax breaks every year. Those savings help the Tour provide professional golfers with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tournament payouts and a yearly salary for Finchem eclipsing $5 million. The Tour’s pocketbook also isn’t hurt by the fact that many of the people who work at its events are unpaid volunteers affiliated with charity partners.

Despite the PGA Tour’s ability to avoid taxes and turn players into multimillionaires, it seems there’s not much left in the kitty for one group of workers who make far less than the players themselves. We’re talking, of course, about the caddies, who recently filed a lawsuit over being required to wear so called “bibs,” which cover the valuable space on their shirts that otherwise could be sold for corporate sponsorships.

According to the lawsuit, the PGA Tour makes roughly $50 million each year for including corporate logos on the bibs that the Tour requires caddies to wear, while the caddie themselves actually make, well, nothing.  Not a dime.  Instead, the caddies work for the players themselves, but they’ve acquiesced to the Tour’s demand that they wear the bibs for years for fear that not doing so would put them, or their player employers, in peril. That was until the recent lawsuit was filed.

The highest-profile caddie in the world, Steve Williams of “I-used-to-be-Tiger Woods’-caddie” fame, recently joined the lawsuit and told reporters he was fined by the PGA Tour seven different times at $500 a pop during one season for taking off his bib on the 18th hole of various tournaments. Williams, a multimillionaire himself, certainly had the money to pay up. However, risking such fines is unthinkable for the many caddies who actually lose money when they work a tournament where their player doesn’t finish high on the leader board.

Thanks to lawyers, this may change.  Lawyers are often accused of stirring up trouble, but here they are doing what they do best:  representing the little guy.  We don’t know if the caddies will ultimately prevail and be allowed to share in some of the massive revenue that they help make possible, but thanks to lawyers they will get the chance to make their case.    

 

Posted: 3/31/2015 11:52:11 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

​Tort Reform Hits GM Ignition Switch Cases

In addition to limiting damages in civil lawsuits, tort reform has become a relied-upon weapon in the campaign arsenals for local, state and federal politicians in Texas and across the U.S. By further demonizing the legal profession and highlighting outlier verdicts, albeit sometimes incorrectly, tort reform advocates have amassed intense support from the public and political parties alike.

The Texas Tort Reform Act was signed into law in 2003 under the notion of establishing and maintaining a fair, honest and predictable system of justice that balances the rights of everyone involved. Supporters point to Texas’ tort reform efforts as the reason why thousands of additional doctors have begun working in the state since 2003 and why they pay lower medical malpractice insurance rates, although many prominent studies and researchers disagree.

One stark example of tort reform’s impact on certain tort victims is the subject of a recent, lengthy article from The New York Times focusing on victims of the well-publicized ignition switch defect in General Motors automobiles. The GM ignition switch defect has allegedly been responsible for more than 40 deaths and countless injuries during the past 10 years. Attorneys for those victims and several media organizations have exposed GM’s extensive efforts to conceal the related dangers and the government’s inability to monitor and stem the problem.

According to the NY Times story, many GM ignition switch cases were settled under confidential terms before the public even knew about the defect. In those cases, what GM knew about the defect and when may never be known. The article also details individual cases where victims’ families have been unable to find a lawyer willing to take on their cases based on restrictive limits on damages, including Wisconsin’s $350,000 cap on loss of society claims.  

While tort reformers’ stated goal of achieving a “fair” and “honest” justice system sounds great in theory, those are not the words that come to mind when potentially meritorious claims are left by the wayside because there’s no chance for a victim to have her day in court to seek a reasonable financial recovery.
 

Posted: 3/12/2015 6:57:41 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

​Too Famous for Jury Duty?

Ah, to be a lead actor in Hollywood. Swimming pools. Movie stars. And no jury duty?

That’s apparently the case if you’re leading man Brad Pitt, who reportedly was dismissed from serving on a Los Angeles Criminal Court jury recently. According to media accounts, the big screen star was waiting for his number to be called when he was quietly approached by court officials and told that his civil service wasn’t needed based on the notion that his presence would be “too distracting.”

Seriously? Too famous for jury duty? Is that a thing? 

Although Dallas billionaire and international TV star Mark Cuban told reporters he’s previously been dismissed from jury duty for the same reason, he still was selected to sit on a Dallas civil jury in November and helped decide a personal injury claim in which the plaintiff was awarded no damages.

Giving a free pass to Pitt, Cuban or any famous person is a bad idea if for nothing more than implying that they are somehow immune from the same civic duty that other potential jurors are there to perform. If lawyers believe their client can’t get a fair case with a celebrity sitting on the jury, then they can strike them from the panel. When courts preemptively make that decision for them, it only lessens the public’s view of our justice system.
 

Posted: 3/10/2015 9:48:57 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

​New Rules for Electronic Devices in Courtrooms

The rapid expansion of new technology and the resulting impact in the courtroom are topics we have covered here for some time, including a few recommended guidelines that have been offered for federal jurisdictions.

Now, the New Jersey Supreme Court has taken the next step by issuing uniform rules governing how attorneys and others in the courtroom are expected to behave when it comes to their smartphones and other wireless devices.

Taking effect in early February, the new rules are designed to allow courthouse goers to use their high-tech gadgets without harming the parties’ cases or delaying courtroom proceedings. Restrictions and allowances governing cameras in the courtroom have been on the books in many states for years, but the New Jersey rules covering today’s mobile devices appear to be the first of their kind.

In addition to limiting where such devices can be used within the courthouse, the new rules also dictate how they can be used. For example, email communications in the hallway will be permitted, while taking photographs is banned. The rules also will require annual, renewable written agreements from lawyers and others who use their devices inside New Jersey courtrooms. Failure to honor the agreement can result in sanctions, including contempt of court.

No doubt we have entered an era where the rapid change of technological life will continually test the ability of courts and lawyers to keep up.  But the move by the New Jersey Supreme Court demonstrates that the courts are neither unaware of the issue nor unwilling to take steps to insure the fair administration of justice while permitting the technology we all use today.
 

Posted: 3/6/2015 9:20:19 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

​Lawyers Face Dangers, Too

Every day, police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges who work in our criminal justice system face significant dangers that most of us in the legal profession never have to worry about. That’s because they regularly work with defendants who are sometimes capable of horrific crimes. 

When the courts decide to levy punishment, some of these defendants violently lash out at those who prosecuted them, or even those who have done their best to defend them. (Family lawyers face similar dangers since the cases they handle often involve emotionally charged issues such as child custody and visitation, which can cause those involved to take extreme measures.)

Yesterday, the trial court denied a motion for new trial in the convictions of Eric and Kim Williams for the murders of former Kaufman County DA Mike McLelland, his wife Cynthia, and his former First Assistant DA Mark Hasse.   Mr. Williams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in late December for his role in the brutal, execution-style slayings, which were based on his earlier prosecution by McLelland and Hasse for stealing county computer equipment. 

Shortly after Mr. Williams’ conviction, his wife reached a guilty plea on murder charges, earning a 40-year sentence. Now, Mr. Williams, the triggerman, is on death row, and his wife, the getaway driver, will serve 20 years before being eligible for parole.

The case against Mr. Williams was prosecuted by private criminal defense attorneys who were brought in to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. They willingly stepped outside their normal roles to present a compelling case for why this defendant deserved the death penalty, and the unanimous jury agreed. On the other side of the case, Mr. Williams’ public defenders handled their roles with competence and professionalism in the face of extensive evidence confirming their client’s heinous crimes.

This is the way that the justice system is supposed to work, where the rule of law wins out over vendettas and violence.  Kudos to the judges and lawyers involved who upheld the rule of law in what was no doubt very personal and very trying circumstances.  

Posted: 3/4/2015 8:11:54 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

About This Blog

Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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