SAN FRANCISCO – Disgruntled golf caddies filed a class-action suit against PGA, largely because they alleged their bibs made them feel like “human billboards," but a federal judge recently threw the case out. 

Approximately 168 caddies claimed that the PGA violated their “right to publicity” because the bibs caddies are required to wear display various corporate logos in addition to the name of the tournament and the name of the golfer the caddie is working for. 

The case also highlighted the working conditions for caddies on the PGA tour with the suit describing one incident at a 2015 tournament when caddies were left to seek shelter in a metal shed or in their vehicles after play was suspended because of a thunderstorm. This allegation prompted ESPN analyst Scott Van Pelt to opine that the PGA Tour "treats its caddies like outside dogs."

Although Judge Vince Girardi Chhabria of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California was sympathetic to the plight of the caddies, he dismissed the case with prejudice last month. 

Gerald L. Maatman Jr., a partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP in Chicago and former General Counsel and President of the Chicago District Golf Association/Golf Association of Illinois, told the Northern California Record that every person has the right to control the commercial use of his or her name, image, likeness or identity under the right to publicity. The caddies’ class-action suit used that right as the launching pad for the claims.

“Class-action lawsuits have been popping up in all major professional sports of late," Maatman said. "Examples are the NFL cheerleaders suing with wage and hour violations, (and) concussion claims against the NFL, pro soccer and the NHL. Success with class actions often begets copycats, and this suit by the caddies was a natural outcome of this phenomenon.”

 Maatman wrote in a blog post that the caddies alleged that the PGA could not require them to wear the bibs during tournaments, or at least that the PGA must compensate them for doing so, because of the publicity the bibs provide for the PGA and it sponsors. The suit alleged breach of contract, including duress and unjust enrichment, in addition to violations of the “right of publicity,” federal antitrust laws, the Lanham Act and the California unfair competition law.

Caddies have been wearing the bibs for decades and knew this was a requirement of the job, according to Chhabria's ruling. In signing their contracts for each tournaments, they agreed to wear the bibs and relinquished any rights to compensation, the court ruled. 

“The case theory did not have legs, and the fact that the pro golfers are not employees but independent contractors means the caddies are too,” he said. 

Since the case was dismissed, it will have no impact on professional golfers.

“If anything, it may prompt tournament sponsors and the PGA Tour to update its rules and regulations to prevent any such claims being asserted in the future,”  Maatman said.

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