A funny thing happened on the way to Tom Girardi’s Major League Baseball career. He was riding the bus to Albuquerque with dreams of joining a farm club and making it to the big leagues. The bus pulled into a parking lot at a diner, and Girardi went inside and called home. His parents told him he had been accepted at Loyola Law School, but he had to be there the next day.
“My coach called me ‘great glove, no hit’,’’ says Girardi, who caught the next plane out to a different field of dreams. His career as a lawyer has been that of an All-Star, with hits too numerous to count: the first million-dollar medical malpractice verdict in California; $633 million for the residents of Hinkley, Calif., poisoned by Pacific Gas & Electric, made famous in Erin Brockovich; $2 billion for California consumers overcharged by Sempra Energy; and $4.85 billion against Merck for heart attacks caused by Vioxx.
Still, he’s been in love with baseball his whole life, regularly attending Dodgers games and cheering on the home team. “A day at the ballpark, there’s nothing better than that,” says the infectiously enthusiastic Girardi, his blue eyes sparkling. He still animates discussions about a recent victory with a mock swing at a ball crossing the plate.
His feelings about the Dodgers began to change over the past few years, however, as he watched the storied franchise begin to erode under the ownership of the McCourts. He noticed the Dodgers’ beloved organist, Nancy Bea Hefley, become largely silenced, and even Vin Scully seemed occasionally dismayed.
The team did not invest in top talent when it became available, yet charged fans ever higher prices to attend. A certain hooligan element began to pervade the stadium.
Then, about two years ago, a young man was attacked at the stadium and suffered a fractured neck. Girardi represented the fan in his claim against the Dodgers. That suit came before the McCourt divorce made public their structuring of the team’s operations into a series of corporations intended not only to insulate the McCourts from liability, but also allowing them to take extraordinary amounts of cash out of the team, by some estimates $14 million a year.
Girardi was not at opening day this year, but read with dismay the accounts of the attack on Giants fan Bryan Stow. The 42-year old paramedic from Santa Cruz traveled to Los Angeles with five friends for the special occasion. The Giants had asked if the opener could be moved to San Francisco to celebrate their World Series victory last year, and though Major League Baseball agreed, the Dodgers refused. In addition, the game was scheduled for a 5 p.m. start — a change from the Dodgers’ tradition of a day opener. Throughout the game, Stow and his friends were heckled, and food wrappers were thrown at them by Dodger fans, who packed the stadium. There were 56,000 spectators in attendance that night, the largest seating capacity of any Major League Baseball stadium.
At 7:03 p.m., Stow texted his family that he was scared. The Dodgers won the contest, 2-1, and Stow left, heading for the taxi stand in Lot 2, where they arrived at about 8 p.m. Two assailants attacked Stow in the ill-lit lot with no security to intervene. He was beaten in the head, fell to the ground and then was kicked in the head. It took security more than 10 minutes to respond. Stow has been unconscious ever since.
When friends in law enforcement connected the Stow family with Girardi, he decided to do his best Kirk Gibson and swing for the fences, filing a mammoth lawsuit claiming Frank McCourt’s financial shenanigans and mismanagement are endangering the fans. And, like any other maker of a defective product, McCourt is putting profits over people with disastrous consequences.
“It’s fairly simple,” Girardi explained. “The Dodgers have shown a total disregard for public safety. They’ve gotten rid of security people, they’ve had all these incidents at their games, more than other teams, there’s also a known gang presence. What did they think was going to happen?”
The suit names 14 defendants, all of which are essentially McCourt holding companies, allowing the embattled owner to transfer money among the various entities and pay himself among the highest rents in baseball, helping to support a lavish lifestyle that included eight homes, including one that was allegedly just for doing the laundry.
To make ends meet, the lawsuit claims, the Dodgers cut the security force and increased promotions like half-off beer night.
“It’s just incredible that anyone could allow this to happen,” says Girardi. “Once you know you have a real security problem and then you decide to do nothing about it, you are liable under the law. Especially when you cut security by up to two-thirds, fire the security director, and sauce everybody up with beer.”
The suit itself is drawing praise from legal experts for the parallels it draws to corporations that choose profits over safety, and tying those profits to an executive living a life of excess. Filed by Girardi and Christopher Aumais, Stow and his children, Tyler and Tabitha, have sued through his conservators and the children’s guardian ad litem.
“It is unforunate that such a storied and well-respected baseball club such as the Los Angeles Dodgers has been made to suffer due to the cutbacks and mismanagement by its owner Frank McCourt and his various corporate entities,” Aumais says. The suit claims that McCourt’s mismanagement and divorce woes caused him to cut security, with measures that accelerated in 2009. “The over approximately 21 McCourt entities are comprised of a myriad of companies and corporations, each purposefully and intricately designed to fund McCourts’ lavish lifestyle while depleting the Dodgers of necessary funds to operate adequately and properly. This led to a disturbing reduction in security staff for Dodgers games.”
The suit also makes clear that McCourt has been on notice about the consequences of these cutbacks with similar incidents occurring at Dodger Stadium since 2004, including a death.
“This is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen,” says Girardi. “Ballparks are where you go to be with your family, they’re a place for children. Not a bank for an owner who cares nothing about his fans or team.”
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