As the full swing of the PGA season rounds the corner, and with the azaleas blooming at Augusta, the trusted confidants of golf's premier players have already missed the cut.
Last month, the District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit filed against the PGA Tour by a group of 168 caddies contending that the Tour may not require them to wear shoulder-to-thigh length "bibs" during tournaments, many of which feature the name of the golfer for whom the caddie works (on the back) and the names and logos of tournament sponsors (on the front) (Hicks v. PGA Tour, Inc., 2016 WL 928728 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 9, 2016)). Among other arguments, the caddies alleged that the Tour missed the fairway and violated their "right of publicity" by using them as "human billboards" for tournament sponsors without compensation.
California, like many other states, recognizes both a statutory and a common law right of publicity. In California, to state a claim for common law misappropriation in violation of the right of publicity, a plaintiff must allege that defendant used the plaintiff's name, likeness, or identity without plaintiff's consent, to the defendant's advantage, causing harm to plaintiff. The caddies argued that they had never consented to the Tour's use of their "likeness and images" in connection with the corporate-sponsored bibs during television broadcasts of tournaments. Lawyers for the caddies estimated the value of chest-front advertising on caddie bibs at $50 million per Tour season, of which the caddies received no cut.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria dismissed the caddies' lawsuit last month with prejudice, writing that "(t)he caddies' overall complaint about poor treatment by the Tour has merit, but this federal lawsuit about bibs does not." The court's ruling relied heavily on the contract that each caddie must sign with the Tour to work an event. The form contract provides that "(c)addies shall wear uniforms…as prescribed by the host tournament and the PGA TOUR," but does not explicitly require a caddie to wear a tournament bib. The caddies argued that the contract's particular silence as to bibs precludes the Tour from requiring the caddies to wear the advertisement-laden smocks between the ropes. As a matter of contract interpretation, Judge Chhabria cited the general rule that even where disputed contract language appears ambiguous, the ambiguity can be resolved as a matter of law where context reveals that the language is susceptible to only one interpretation. The court found context in the caddies' own admission that the Tour has required them to wear bibs for decades as the primary part of their "uniform." Therefore, concluded Judge Chhabria, the only reasonable interpretation of the contract is that caddies agreed the Tour could make them wear bibs.
Resting upon this interpretation of the Tour contract, the court ruled that the critical element in the caddies' right of publicity violation claim was not satisfied, namely, a lack of consent. Because the court interpreted the caddie contract as requiring the caddies to wear bibs, and when read with a provision of the contract whereby caddies assign to the Tour their "individual television, radio, motion picture, photographic, electronic … and all other similar or related media rights" with respect to their participation in Tour events, the court concluded that the caddies consented to the use of their images at tournaments, including any logo on the bibs. Thus, tapping in an easy two-foot putt, the court dismissed the caddies' claim relating to the right control the commercial use of their likenesses.
Even if the district court's decision is upheld on appeal, all is not lost. Caddies still possess a long game and can always individually negotiate with sponsors to endorse products and place advertisements on other highly visible parts of the uniform, such as hats and shirt sleeves. Further, the court apparently did find some merit in the caddies' allegations of poor treatment by the Tour, which may earn them a few strokes in the court of public opinion. So, they got that going for them, which is nice.