Lawsuit against Williams sisters ends in mistrial

Updated: December 13, 2005, 1:40 PM ET
Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A judge declared a mistrial Tuesday in a lawsuit by promoters who contended Venus and Serena Williams reneged on a deal to play men in a proposed "Battle of the Sexes" tennis event in 2001.

Judge Jeffrey A. Winicoff granted a request for a mistrial by John Romano, attorney for promoters Carol Clarke and Keith Rhodes, after almost three weeks of testimony. It was not immediately clear if the case would return to court.

F. Malcolm Cunningham, lawyer for the Williams sisters, said the mistrial was declared after one of the attorneys for their father, Richard Williams, asked Clarke if someone else had given her money in return for a percentage of any damages their lawsuit produced.

Winicoff had said in a private conference with attorneys Monday that he did not want that evidence brought before the jury, Cunningham said. Romano, in asking for the mistrial, insisted the question asked by attorney Jan Michael Morris would prejudice the jury, and Winicoff agreed.

"I told you not to raise that issue and you ignored my order," Winicoff told Morris.

The judge fined the attorney $1,000. Morris said the judge could have simply instructed the jury to ignore the question.

"While I respect the judge's decision, I believe it was entirely wrong," Morris said. "Now we're going to have to start from scratch."

Cunningham said the lawsuit was "frivolous" and the case may be over. Romano, however, said the case won't go away.

"I believe in this case and I believe in my clients and I believe in the sanctity of a contract," Romano said.

The lawsuit sought unspecified damages that would likely run into several million dollars, based on estimates that the never-staged "Battle of the Sexes" may have netted up to $45 million in profit. Of that, Richard Williams Tennis & Associates was to receive 80 percent, with Clarke and Rhodes getting 20 percent.

Clarke insisted in testimony Monday that she had worked out a deal for the event with Richard Williams, who she said told her he could make the agreement on behalf of his daughters. But Venus and Serena Williams testified they alone had that authority, and they were represented for business purposes by the IMG sports management agency, not their father.

Richard Williams said he never viewed his discussions with Clarke as leading to a formal contract, portraying himself mainly as a protective father and tennis coach.

Cunningham repeatedly questioned Clarke's motives during cross-examination, accusing her of attempting to capitalize on the Williams' sisters fame through a variety of projects, including the sale of sister-endorsed bracelets and an Internet-ready bus that would provide paying customers with an inside look at their lives while on the tennis tour.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press