Jim Matthews uses his ballplayer grading scale for med-mal cases
Published in 2011 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 17, 2011
Updated on October 2, 2019
James B. Matthews III has a thing for hot corners. The Atlanta Braves drafted him to play third base—the hot corner—in the late ’70s, and it was on a street corner on a brutal summer day where Matthews met the client who would change his practice.
He began in med-mal defense. “There were a couple of occasions representing doctors that they’d basically tell me they were either going to stretch the truth or just not tell the truth,” he says. “I would tell them, ‘No, you are not going to do that.’”
One case in particular got him to switch sides.
“I was walking back to the office following lunch one day in the summertime,” he says. “It was about 100 degrees but I had on a suit and jacket because Dave Burch at our firm thought it’d be a good idea if every lawyer wore his jacket when he walked around downtown.”
On a corner, two women walked up to him, looking forlorn, and one asked, “Are you a lawyer?” She then told him about her child.
“Her daughter was burned by another kid who was playing with matches,” Matthews says. “I told her—and honestly, I wasn’t very nice—‘I don’t know if I can help you, but bring your daughter to my office tomorrow at 10 a.m.’ I didn’t think she’d come.”
She did, and Matthews was shocked. “This cute little girl was burned from the back of her head to the top of her buttocks,” Matthews says. “She was in the burn unit for two months, had $400,000 in medical bills. The more we looked into it, we realized we could help.”
Matthews argued that the garment the child was wearing when she got burned did not comply with federal regulations on flammability. Expert testimony agreed. The family was awarded $2 million and he kept in touch with them for years.
Matthews, who now practices at Blasingame Burch Garrard Ashley in Athens, didn’t figure on plaintiff or defense work; he always thought he’d play in the major leagues. He went to Georgia Southern University on a baseball scholarship and the Braves took him in the 10th round of the 1978 draft. “Unfortunately for me, the Braves first-round pick that year also played third base, Bob Horner, so after a few years I realized I was not going to play for the Braves,” he says. “Law was my fallback.”
His face never graced the front of a baseball card but he does have a World Series ring from the St. Louis Cardinals 2006 championship. How? He scouts for the organization. “Baseball really is a fraternity,” he says. “You keep in touch with guys you played with. A guy I knew who scouted for the Cards started asking me to go down to University of Georgia to watch so-and-so pitch from Ole Miss, or go to Georgia Tech to see what I thought about this kid. It got to the point I was doing it every weekend.”
Eventually his friend made a call to the Cardinals’ director of scouting and Matthews was hired on a part-time basis.
“It’s fun,” he says. “I get to see some good players and hang out with baseball guys, it gets me outdoors, and it’s a good diversion. I don’t think about law when I’m at a ballgame.
“I started six years ago, so guys I was lookin’ at are just breaking through,” he adds. Those guys include Atlanta’s Jason Heyward and San Francisco’s rookie of the year Buster Posey, who now has a World Series ring of his own. “Sometimes you really like a kid, and he gets taken before your pick. We missed out on both those kids.”
Matthews’ scouting lends an interesting perspective to case selection. “In scouting, we all use a 20 to 80 grading scale to assess five tools for a position player: arm strength, fielding, hitting, hitting for power, running. Giving a high school kid a 50 means I’m predicting that at some point he’ll be an average major league player if he makes it.
“When I look at a case, I grade it five-tool, using standards like plaintiff appealability (is this a nice person a jury will like?), venue (is this a good place to have a plaintiff’s case?), and medicine, which I heavily grade (is there truly a violation of standard of care?). I’ll tell my partners, ‘I think this is a 65 case.’ They’ll be like, ‘What are you talking about?” If the case grades out to a 40 or 45, we probably would not do that case.”
The approach, he says, works. And he’s certainly aware of problems with less systematic grading systems.
“I played Cal Ripken Jr. in probably his first professional baseball game,” he says. “He was 18 years old, with the Bluefield Orioles in the Appalachian League, and I played for the Kingsport Braves. We were all sitting on the bench looking at this little kid playing shortstop, about 6’3”, 165 pounds then, who was nothing great,” he says. “We were griping that the only reason he got the chance at pro ball was because his father was the third-base coach for the Orioles.” He laughs. “You know, it turned out, I was probably wrong about that.”