Williamses shouldn't face retrial of suit, judge writes
By Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007
WEST PALM BEACH — While Serena Williams mowed down opponents at the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, the tennis world's latest comeback kid, her equally famous sister and their father this week won a different - but potentially lucrative - victory in an indoor court in West Palm Beach.
In a 14-page opinion, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Winikoff made it absolutely clear the family should not be dragged back into court for a retrial of a breach of contract lawsuit the Williamses won decisively in December. The ruling sets the stage for them to head back to court to seek reimbursement for the expenses they incurred fighting would-be promoters Carol Clarke and Keith Rhodes in a legal battle that began in 2002.
Boca Raton attorney Jan Michael Morris, who represents Richard Williams, said he will seek $600,000 in legal fees and another $72,000 in court costs from the promoters who unsuccessfully claimed the Williamses reneged on a potentially multi-million-dollar battle-of-the-sexes tennis tournament that was to be played in 2001.
F. Malcolm Cunningham, a West Palm Beach attorney who represents Venus and Serena Williams, said he will seek $120,000 in court costs.
While state law allows the winning side to recover court costs, Cunningham said the sisters are not entitled to seek reimbursement for attorneys fees because they never offered to settle the lawsuit.
Richard Williams, however, in 2004 offered Clarke and Rhodes $10,000 to settle the case, Morris said. In a measure designed to encourage people to settle lawsuits, state law allows litigants to recover attorneys fees if their settlement offer is at least 25 percent more than a jury ultimately awards.
After a nearly six week trial and four hours of deliberation, a jury found Clarke and Rhodes deserved nothing.
John Romano, who represented the two promoters, could not be reached. He has said he would try to recover his fee associated with the 2005 trial that was aborted when Winikoff found Morris had asked Clarke an inappropriate question.
To be successful, Romano would have to prove that Morris intentionally caused a mistrial, Cunningham said. "The likelihood of him prevailing is slim," he said.
Further, Cunningham said, he suspects Winikoff wanted to forestall a successful appeal when he took the unusual step of writing an opinion to reject Romano's request for a new trial. Typically, judges don't write opinions when they deny such requests.
"It's almost impossible for them to overcome this," Cunningham said of Winikoff's point-by-point rejection of Romano's arguments. "He's is shutting them down."
Romano also failed to persuade Circuit Judge Elizabeth Maass that he should be able to sue IMG, the management giant that represented the sisters, over essentially the same issues. She tossed the suit March 2.