Country music superstar Garth Brooks’ victory in an Oklahoma state court should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone involved in legal action. Most litigation carries the possibility for reward, but at great risk. Balancing the opportunity of risk and reward is how most cases settle, as this one should have.
On Tuesday, Brooks received a verdict for $1,000,000.00 in actual and punitive damages from the hospital in his boyhood hometown. In 2005, Brooks donated $500,000.00 to Integris Canadian Valley Hospital in Yukon, Oklahoma. Brooks claimed an oral agreement that the hospital would name a women’s clinic after his late mother. When the hospital indicated it would use the money for another purpose, Brooks asked them to return the gift. The hospital countered that there was no written agreement, there was no meeting of the minds to make an oral agreement, and the donation was anonymous and unrestricted.
The hospital hoped to convince a jury that Brooks had turned his back on his hometown. They wanted to paint an image of Brooks as someone who used his money to control others – and that he changed the conditions for his donation after the fact. If the jury could be convinced that Brooks should not have entered into such a loose arrangement for such a large sum of money, then the gift should not be returned. The hospital hoped to be perceived as a healing community victimized by a peevish popular culture figure with an outsized ego.
For his part, Brooks promoted the notion that he was motivated merely to help others while honoring his deceased mother. The hospital took advantage of his good nature. Brooks hoped to be perceived as a man whose handshake was as good as a written contract, and the hospital reneged.
Integris took the risk that they could convince a jury not to trust one of Oklahoma’s most popular native sons. In the end, Brooks proved himself to be the classic sympathetic plaintiff. Brooks’ storehouse of goodwill, and his testimony in support of his case, carried the day.
Despite the outcome, there can still be downside for Brooks’ brand. He risks causing some fans to think less of him because of unfavorable testimony presented by the hospital. Some fans may be disappointed with him just for bringing the lawsuit. Of course, standing successfully on principle could actually enhance the Brooks brand. Think Oprah Winfrey versus the beef producers in Texas several years ago.
Here’s the lesson for anyone thinking of taking a case to court – never buy into your own hype. Sometimes it can seem neither side prevails, given the beating to all parties’ personal or professional reputation. The financial and emotional toll can also be quite high, win or lose. In litigation, there’s a time to take a stand, and a time to find a way. Good lawyers recognize the difference. Sometimes their clients do not.