Saturday, October 29, 2011

Legal Glimpse: Father and Son Want Olympic Jerseys Back From Hall of Fame

Do you believe in litigation miracles? (I do and for that reason I'm obscenely expensive).

The father of all things puck, Greg Wyshynski (o/a Puck Daddy) has penned (or typed) a great article on a dispute between a family and the Hockey Hall of Fame.


In U.S. Olympic heroes vs. Hockey Hall of Fame: Who owns history?, Mr. Daddy tells a story of father and son U.S. hockey Olympians suffering from a serious case of charitable remorse.

In1981, Bill Christian was contacted by the Hall of Fame asking if he along with his son Dave would be open to donating their jerseys to the Hall. Bill and Chris both won gold medals representing the U.S. hockey Olympic team - Bill in 1960 and Dave in the much vaunted 1980 Miracle on Ice. To this day, they remain the only father and son "to win gold medals in the same Winter Olympic sport".

The jerseys were donated to the Hall.

Fast forward 30 years - Bill and Dave are disputing whether the jerseys were donated.

Despite receiving a letter confirming the donation, Bill alleges that "he didn't believe it was a donation", while his son Dave says "he never agreed to donate or loan his jersey to the Hall" in the first place.

Dave said it was a mistake not to question the wording of the letter. "My dad is not an attorney", he said.

Izak Westgate, assistant curator for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, said it's clear with donors that items that are permanently gifted to the Hall.

Who's Offside: Legal Considerations

So does the good Christian family have a legal leg to stand on?

Working against them is the existence of a letter confirming the donation. Specifically, the Hall wrote Bill thanking him and his son for "donating" the sweaters. The term "donate" is well understood to mean a "gift". In turn, a gift is defined as "something given voluntarily without payment in return".

Not good for the Christian family. Wobbly legal leg.

On the flip side, here are some issues to consider for the Christian family:

1) Dave says he never authorized the donation of his jersey. If there was a gift release signed (which is commonplace for these types of donations and just says that the donating party is giving up the item forever), then the next question is whether Dave signed one. As well, did Dave ever provide his express consent to the Hall regarding the disposition of his jersey. He's the owner of the jersey, so in theory only he can give it up (and not his dad).

2) Dave mentioned that his "dad is not an attorney". At law, when a party with no lawyer enters into a contract, the other side generally advises them that they should get independent legal advice before finalizing the deal. If that direction is not provided, then that may be a problem. Problem though is that the definition of "donation" is pretty straightforward. If they signed a gift release, the issue is how complicated was the release. If it's filled with legalese, then that might be an issue in the context of advising them to seek independent legal advice. Still tough one.

3) Who owns the jerseys to begin with? Does USA Hockey own the jerseys? I know players keep jerseys and routinely give them away, etc. However (and perhaps in the context of the Olympics particularly), that's a relevant question. I simply don't know the answer to this question.

If Dave and Bill didn't own the jerseys, then neither would have had the authority to give them away. Practically speaking, if USA Hockey owns the jerseys then they could tell the Hall to keep them.

4) If Dave did donate his jersey, how old was he at the time? Minors don't have the capacity to enter into contracts until they reach the age of majority, which is usually 18. However, this does not mean that minors may not make contracts. They can - however those contracts may not be enforceable. I think Dave was 21 or so at the time, so this may not apply.

This will be a tough case for the Christian family. The Hall won't want to return a donated item since that would set a really bad and potentially unmanageable precedent. This is particularly the case given that the memorabilia market has really taken off. I could probably get $50,000 for Gilbert Dionne's mouthguard and $5000 for Tony Tanti's eyelash.

Maybe the focus should be on Dave's jersey and whether he donated it. Getting back one of two jerseys wouldn't be bad.

By the way, the Christian family isn't too bad at hockey. Bill's brother Roger played on the same 1960 team, while the third brother Gordon played on the 1956 Olympic team.

Son and nephew Dave played for the Winnipeg Jets, Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. He finished his career with 340 goals and 433 assists in 1,009 NHL regular season games. He went to the 1991 All-Star game, and holds the record for the fastest goal by a player in his first NHL game, scoring just 7 seconds into his first shift.


Geoff Rosenthal said...

Hi Eric,

I was trying to use my semester's worth of law background and make a case for the Christians.

Tough job, obviously.

My biggest sticking points:

1. The fact that Dave Christian is the owner of his jersey. If he didn't sign a release, it's still his property, even if Bill signed something on his own. I'd imagine that this would make the letter's wording (donation) a moot point. No legal change of ownership, no letter.

2. The inequality of bargaining power. Clearly not a perfect application here, but I think the point you made about the complexity of the gift release is a very important one. If it's too complex, then that could be considered bad faith negotiation by the HHOF. Were the terms explicitly laid out for Bill upon signing?

Also, back to number one. If it's determined Dave is the owner, this shouldn't matter, right?

Thanks for the blog!


Eric Macramalla said...

Hi Geoff,

Thank you for your comments and interest.

1) Bottom line is if there was no contract or agreement between Dave and Hall with respect to the disposition of his jersey, then there is the argument that Dave never gifted the jersey. The father may not have been in a position to gift his son's jersey since he was not the owner. This would apply even if Bill signed something agreeing t donate both jerseys. So did Dave agree to gift his jersey?

2) Inequality of bargaining power is also relevant - agreed. The paperwork strikes me as straightforward with words with plain meaning. However, this is part of the consideration.