Supreme Court overturns $1 million award to Williams

by Nickalas Tabbert

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a $1 million jury award to would-be University of Minnesota assistant basketball coach Jimmy Williams, ruling that Williams was not entitled to “protection against negligent misrepresentations.”

The court ruled 3-2 to reverse the jury award and a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision to uphold the award for Williams.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals last fall unanimously upheld a Hennepin County jury’s May 2010 verdict that head basketball coach Tubby Smith misrepresented his authority in 2007 by offering Williams an assistant coaching position.

Justice Christopher J. Dietzen wrote that “we believe the manner in which [the University] treated Williams regarding his prospective employment with the University was unfair and disappointing.”

But the court concluded that Smith did not owe Williams a duty of care in the negotiations and that “Williams’ claim for negligent misrepresentation fails as a matter of law.”

The court said Williams’ claim was not subject to certiorari review – one in which the Supreme Court hears a Court of Appeals Case – because it was separate and distinct from the University’s decision not to hire him because the central inquiry and focus was on Smith’s representations.

“The university is pleased with today’s decision, which finally puts an end to this case and vindicates our longstanding position that Williams’ claims against Coach Smith and the university had no legal merit,” University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said in a statement.

“We are particularly gratified by the Court’s clear recognition that Smith did not mislead Willliams into quitting his job at OSU. Williams’ mistaken assumption was unfortunate, but that did not justify five years of litigation against the university.”

A press statement on behalf of Williams said he is considering his remaining legal options and he believes the decision was in error.

“We simply note for now that the University should be neither proud of nor emboldened by this decision relieving it of the legal consequences for its actions,” the statement said. “It is hoped this experience will prompt the University to instead do what’s right and provide truthful and accurate information to prospective employees in the future.”

Williams and Smith discussed salary and recruiting assignments for the University in 2007. Williams as a result of Smith’s actions resigned from his position as assistant basketball coach at Oklahoma State University, telling OSU head coach Sean Sutton he had been offered and accepted a position at the University.

The next day, Smith told Williams that former athletic director Joel Maturi strongly opposed the hire after finding out that Williams had multiple major NCAA rules infractions when he was previously at the University.

Two justices shared a dissent in the case. Justice Helen Meyer said in her dissent that Smith owed a duty of care to provide accurate information to Williams. Acting Justice Waldemar Senyk joined Meyer in her dissent.

Four justices were not involved in the case due to University ties, and two acting justices were appointed to hear the case.