In The Ring With Jerry McDevitt
He's who Vince McMahon calls when the WWE is up against the ropes
Published in 2008 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 23, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Jerry McDevitt’s first World Wrestling Entertainment client often played a “heel,” or bad guy, in the ring. But as the star of a real-life legal brawl, Jim “the Anvil” Neidhart turned out to be one of the good guys.
Neidhart was arrested while on a commercial flight to Pittsburgh and charged with interfering with the flight crew. “He supposedly punched a flight attendant over a dispute over drinks,” says McDevitt of Pittsburgh’s Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. The witnesses said Neidhart didn’t do it, and he was acquitted. “He was completely innocent.”
At the time, McDevitt wasn’t accustomed to defending such a colorful character. “Most of my clients wore gray suits, gray underwear, gray everything,” he recalls. “Neidhart comes in. He’s got these wraparound shades, ZZ Top beard, closely cropped hair. He was one of the scariest-looking people I’ve ever seen in my life. I remember thinking when I saw him that if a guy like him did what they say he did, everybody in that plane would have seen him because he draws eyes.”
That was in 1987 and it marked the beginning of a long and satisfying relationship with World Wrestling Entertainment—then called the World Wrestling Federation—and the chairman of its board, Vince McMahon.
A prosperous tag team it has been too, as evidenced by the red Ferrari convertible sitting in the garage of McDevitt’s home in McMurray, about 40 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. “This is what you get when you represent Vince McMahon well,” he says. “It’s my one indulgence.”
McDevitt has great respect for McMahon, whom he calls smart, tough and provocative.
“He’s a very accomplished man. He never backs down and he always does the right thing. But for some reason people think that if they sue the WWE, we’re going to pay them money. I always say, ‘We might have deep pockets, but we have very short arms.'”
McDevitt works closely with McMahon and his wife, Linda, chief executive officer of the Connecticut-based company. “I’m kind of like a family consigliere,” McDevitt says.
McMahon wholeheartedly agrees with that comparison. This from a man who freely admits he hates lawyers. He complains that they’ll take one point of view in court then go out and have a drink with the other side. That doesn’t wash with McMahon. “You’re either with me or you’re against me,” he says. In McDevitt, he has found a trusted adviser and friend who’s willing to be “totally in the same boat, whether it sinks or not.”
He’s also found a fierce fighter with extraordinary legal expertise and an understanding of business. “He’s a rare commodity,” McMahon says.
Over the years, the two have handled everything from criminal cases to a high-profile lawsuit by a female body-builder who claimed she had been sexually harassed by a wrestler. Their only loss, McDevitt says, came at the hands of the “tree huggers.”
The Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund had a long-running dispute with McMahon’s company about the right to use the acronym WWF. “They threatened us with all these lawsuits throughout Europe and everywhere else unless we changed our name,” McDevitt says. “We wouldn’t, but we entered into an agreement with them that limited the way WWF could be used.”
That was before the Internet. When the World Wrestling Federation grabbed on to wwf.com, World Wildlife Fund brought suit in the high court of England, where McDevitt, as an American lawyer, wasn’t allowed to practice. “I don’t think anybody who came to our Web site would think it was about panda bears,” he says. Still “the judge issued an injunction that we weren’t allowed to be wwf.com.”
Since the Web site had to change, McMahon decided to rename the company. It all worked out for the best. “WWE better describes what we do for a living because we’re in the entertainment business,” McMahon says.
There were other, sadder legal matters as well. Back in the company’s WWF days, in 1999, a stunt by wrestler Owen Hart went terribly awry. He was supposed to be lowered into the ring from the rafters of Kemper Arena in Kansas City, but the quick-release device opened prematurely and he plummeted to his death. His widow, Martha Hart, received a sizable settlement and wrote a book, Broken Harts: The Life and Death of Owen Hart, in which she writes: “At first sight, the WWF’s lead counsel, Jerry McDevitt, didn’t strike me as the type of polished lawyer I expected to battle in such a high-profile, high-stakes case. He was a tall, thin man in his fifties who wore glasses, and I assumed his unhealthy, hard-living look stemmed, in part, from his frequent cigarette breaks. His suits were slightly outdated, his tousled gray hair rested on his collar and he had an untrimmed mustache.”
McDevitt, who is 6-foot-4 and about 190 pounds, contradicts only one part of her description: “I always trim my mustache!” he says.
But there’s no need to correct what she went on to write: “Despite my first impressions, however, he proved to be a bright, highly skilled and dangerous attorney.”
Divorced with four grown children ranging from 20 to 26, the 58-year-old McDevitt has been a lawyer since 1980. A native of Johnstown, he served as a lieutenant in the Marines before coming to Pittsburgh—”a shot and a beer town with normal people doing normal things”—to attend Duquesne University School of Law.
While in the service, one of his troops, otherwise “a really good kid,” stole an air conditioner and was charged with a felony, even though, at under $500, such a theft would normally qualify as a misdemeanor. The prosecutor didn’t reduce the charge until McDevitt told him he’d hire a lawyer at his own expense.
“From that point on I just thought I would like to represent people in trouble against the government,” McDevitt says.
He did. In 1991, he obtained a ruling on behalf of Hulk Hogan establishing that prospective witnesses at criminal trials could resist government attempts to compel testimony on federal privacy grounds. The defendant in the case, the former doctor for the state of Pennsylvania’s athletic commission, was charged with selling steroids to athletes, including professional wrestlers. Hogan was the prosecution’s big-name, but unwilling, witness.
“I thought it was really unfair that they were trying to drag him through that because he had violated no law,” McDevitt says. (In the early ’90s, doctors who provided steroids without medical purpose could be prosecuted, but it was not a crime to use the drugs. The law has since changed.)
“And so I filed a motion, arguing that they were violating Hogan’s medical privacy by forcing him to come in and testify. And on the eve of the trial, the judge agreed with me so the government couldn’t call him as a witness, which stunned everybody because they were all expecting this big show trial.”
When McDevitt got Hogan out of testifying, it riled influential New York Post writer Phil Mushnick, whose series of columns led to an 18-month federal investigation of the World Wrestling Federation. “It was a real witch hunt,” McDevitt says. “They ended up charging the company with conspiring to defraud the Food and Drug Administration in its attempts to regulate the manufacture and distribution of steroids. How ludicrous is that? We never deal with the FDA. How can we defraud an agency we never even deal with?”
Because of the nature of the charge, he spent the next year learning everything he could about steroids. “It was an interesting story that I wanted to tell about the hypocrisy of the government,” McDevitt says. In essence, he explains, the government condemns steroids but allows them to be sold.
Now in the wake of the Mitchell Report, the names of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other sports figures are forever linked to performance-enhancing drugs. This happened “not in a court of law, not with due process, not with any of those things that are American in nature,” he says. “It’s just a smear job on people’s names and reputations. There’s no environment where the men who use these drugs feel they can come in and talk honestly about them.”
The real problem is that the FDA and Congress “don’t care enough to pass any laws that would do anything about the problem,” he says. “All they do is posture.”
That’s as true today as it was in 1993, he says, when he was first asked to defend McMahon and his company against steroid-usage charges. ” I basically put the government on trial and exposed all the lies about these drugs for years. I didn’t call a single witness. All I did was cross-examine the witnesses the government brought in.” He won a complete acquittal for McMahon.
His practice isn’t all wrestling. In 1999, McDevitt won the only verdict in American legal history that holds a second party responsible for a suicide.
Judy Barrett was a beautiful young woman whose photos reminded McDevitt of Demi Moore. Barrett was found at a bus stop, shot through the mouth with a gun that belonged to her fiancé, a police officer with a history of domestic violence. Her death was ruled a suicide; her loved ones weren’t sure. Barrett’s mother asked McDevitt to take the case.
He argued at the civil trial that the police officer, John Vojtas, should be held responsible for Barrett’s death because he had abused her and contributed to her tragic decision. “And the jury agreed. That was, I think, the most fascinating trial I ever did.” The jury ordered Vojtas to pay Barrett’s family $215,000.
McDevitt started off 2008 with another notable case, this one in defense of a well-known forensic pathologist, and the former Allegheny County coroner, Dr. Cyril Wecht, who was charged with using public property—such as a county fax machine—to further his private autopsy business. McDevitt finds it outrageous that the 77-year-old Wecht, whose expert opinion has been sought on such wide-ranging cases as the John F. Kennedy assassination and the Anna Nicole Smith death, is due to stand trial “on federal felony charges that are $25 alleged crimes. I’ve never heard of the federal system being invoked for that kind of stuff. There are no allegations of bribery, no allegations of kickbacks. This is nothing like a conventional public corruption case.”
McDevitt believes Wecht became a target due to his high-profile nature. “If you’re rich and famous, you’re more likely to be indicted on probable cause. I’ve seen that time and time again with every high-profile client I’ve ever represented. There’s a different standard applied to them.”
There is a temptation to plea bargain. But that’s not McDevitt’s style. Nor Wecht’s.
“Dr. Wecht is not like that. He’s not going to give them his reputation.”
Just before the trial began in early February, the prosecution reduced the charges to a 41-count indictment. McDevitt still doesn’t see the government proving its case. “You can’t outsmart a jury,” he says. “If you just go in there and be honest about what’s going on, and fight hard for your client, I think they respect that.” (The trial ended on the morning of April 8 with a deadlocked jury; the government announced a retrial would begin in late May.)
Besides, he feels most people will agree with him that the government screws up most of what it touches. “So if you expose that these people are acting for improper reason, that it’s not a legitimate case, and you have the perseverance to do what you have to do, you can win.”
No foreign objects needed.