When it comes to suing companies owned by celebrities, plaintiffs attorneys worry jurors can get star-struck.
But pro golfer Tiger Woods had no such effect on the six women hearing a case brought against his company, ETW Corp., when he testified last week in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
The jury found ETW Corp. engaged in deceptive and unfair trade practices in case that has its roots in a 17-year battle over autographs and sports memorabilia.
After deliberating for two hours, the jury awarded $668,000 in damages to Gotta Have It Golf Inc., owned by Bruce Matthews, and that amount could balloon to $1.3 million when interest is calculated, plaintiffs attorneys say.
“The only reason that he was paraded into court was because they thought there would be this celebrity awestruck reaction,” said attorney Eric D. Isicoff, a partner at Isicoff, Ragatz & Koenigsberg in Miami who represented Gotta Have It Golf.
While Isicoff and Ragatz worked up the case, it was solo practitioner Robert Frankel who argued it in front of the jury and won.
Isicoff, who is seeking $1 million in attorney fees from ETW, said the company made a strategic mistake because the jury did not seem to like Woods.
“He is kind of a smug guy, and frankly I thought his performance was very flat,” Isicoff said. “I don’t think he helped his case at all. I don’t think there was any celebrity reaction.”
The all-female jury didn’t help Woods’ cause, Isicoff speculated, since the golfer is nearly as well known for his extramarital affairs as for his prowess on the fairway.
“Most people have had some impression on the guy,” Isicoff said.
Matthews accused Woods of violating a 2001 licensing agreement after his company allegedly did not provide a set amount of autographs and photographs.
Woods testified March 10, a day after he finished the WGC-Cadillac Championship tied for 25th in Doral. He has suffered back pain recently and was clearly in pain at the tournament and even in court, where he wore a wrinkled black suit.
The former No. 1-ranked golfer has won 14 major tournaments but didn’t fully recover from his 2009 sex scandal or a series of injuries.
Accusations of forgery
Woods testified for about 45 minutes near the end of the two-week trial before of Circuit Judge Ronald Dresnick.
Attorney Lawrence Goodman, a partner at Devine Goodman Rasco Watts-FitzGerald & Wells in Miami, represented ETW. He said the company does not comment on litigation, and anything the company has to say about the verdict will come in post-trial motions.
Isicoff said he has been representing Matthews and his company on contingency since 1997 when Woods and fellow golfing icons Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus accused Gotta Have It Sports of selling unauthorized memorabilia at the Masters tournament.
“His employees were carted out in handcuffs and all their merchandise destroyed,” Isicoff said. “They were accused of being forgers.”
The golfers’ companies in 2001 sued Gotta Have It Sports in Miami federal court but ended up paying Matthews on a counterclaim under a confidential settlement.
Matthews entered into an exclusive deal with all three golfers’ companies calling on them to provide memorabilia to the Miami company.
“It should have been pretty amazing, but unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way,” Ragatz said.
Autographs not provided
Isicoff claims Woods almost immediately violated his contract in 2003, providing only 550 of 1,300 promised autographs and denying the use of numerous photos.
While Nicklaus complied with the contract, Arnold Palmer Enterprises Inc. was sued along with Woods in 2003 for failing to live up to their contracts. Palmer settled confidentially, but ETW decided to go to trial.
The case lingered for years because of appeals, Isicoff said.
Ragatz said the jury got to hear evidence and testimony that Woods wanted out of his contract with the Miami company and would deny the use of photographs.
“They refused to approve a number of photos our client could have made good money on. The reasons given were false,” Isicoff said.
The attorney spelled out how lucrative the memorabilia business can be. For instance, a baseball cap signed by Woods can run $1,000. A framed photograph with signed memorabilia can run $2,700.
Isicoff said Dresnick wondered aloud during pretrial hearings and conferences why Woods’ company didn’t settle the case.
“Why would he want to take the chance of a jury finding his company, that he testified he was ultimately responsible for, engaged in deceptive practices?” Isicoff asked. “Why put yourself in that risk?”