Every attorney hopes for a sympathetic client . . . and this was one of those cases.  A man donated half a million dollars to a local hospital to name a women’s center in honor of his mother who died of cancer, but the hospital never built the women’s center.  Oh, and did I mention that this benevolent donor is also hometown hero Garth Brooks?

In what was described as a “teary testimony,” Brooks explained that his mother was pregnant as a teenager and he felt that a women’s center fit her image because she wanted to “help every kid out there.”  After Brooks made the $500,000 donation, the Yukon, Oklahoma based hospital failed to build a women’s center.  In 2005, when Brooks learned that the hospital wanted to use the money for other construction projects he sued for breach of contract.

The hospital argued that Brooks’s donation was an “unconditional gift,” but the jury disagreed.  Last month a jury awarded Brooks $500,000 in punitive damages in addition to the $500,000 he donated, which the jury ruled the hospital must return to him.

This begs the question, “Did Brooks win his case on the merits, or as a result of his fame?”  The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lists Garth Brooks as the third highest selling artist in America of all time, and the number one selling artist in America since the 1990′s.  That makes it hard to find an impartial jury (especially since no potential juror was born after the 1990′s).  In fact, when the potential jury pool was asked if they had heard of the country music star, “[n]early everyone in the jury pool raised their hands.”  Of the possible jurors, eight said that they were fans, and several said they had attended one or more of his concerts.  Additionally, Brooks was accompanied in the court room by his wife, three-time Grammy winner Trisha Yearwood, and a number of potential jurors said they were fans of Yearwood’s too.

Concededly, Brooks may have had a strong case (and surely could afford adequate counsel), but it is interesting to think about whether any of the jurors could ignore Brooks’s celebrity when squaring off against a faceless hospital.

– Talor Bearman

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3 Responses to “Friends in the Right Places” – Friendly Jury Awards Garth Brooks $1 Million

  1. Sam Beutler says:

    I’m sure the “celebrity” factor would also throw a kink in the rules of evidence. For example, the rules of evidence generally forbid admission of prior criminal acts, because the jury may unfairly prejudice the defendant. But when that defendant is a celebrity, then it is likely that the jury already knows about any past acts, character, and other evidence that would be inadmissible for any other defendant. There is no way for procedural rules to compensate for this though, so I guess that just must be the price of fame!

  2. JL says:

    Joanna,
    I agree that fame is likely a double-edged sword; while a celebrity party may generate sympathy from some star-struck members of the jury, others may judge the celebrity with heightened scrutiny and even slight contempt, solely due to their celebrity persona. However, preconceived notions are a powerful factor regardless of the fame of the parties involved and regardless of whether the notions are established years before trial in a movie theater or minutes before trial in the courtroom. I am inclined to believe that public reactions to famous parties do not vary significantly from public reactions to non-famous parties in the courtroom; jury members generate plenty of biases based on gender, race, appearance, socioeconomic status, demeanor, etc. Fortunately, as you mentioned, I also doubt that these notions are deciding factors in most jury verdicts.

  3. Joanna Collins says:

    You raise a great question regarding the impact of celebrity on jury perception. It seems like it would be really difficult for a jury member to set aside what he thinks he knows about a person’s character. Sometimes we feel like we “know” celebrities because there are is so much information about them on television and the web. I am sure that such prior knowledge can influence whether a client is sympathetic or not.

    For instance, Garth Brooks’ public persona is that he is a down-to-earth, genuine person, so it is easy to believe that his heart was in the right place and that he deserves to be compensated. On the other hand, fame is probably a double edged sword – in a drunk driving case, for instance, I can imagine a jury wanting to stick it to a young celebrity because “they can afford it” or have a reputation for getting into trouble. I would be really interested to see data on whether celebrity affects award amounts in any meaningful way. While I think it perhaps can play a role, we are probably selling our juries short if we think that fame or preconceived notions will be the deciding factor. I would be curious to hear from someone who has served on a jury before whether a “sympathetic” client seems to make a difference.