Respectful Insolence

You know our tort system is messed up when stuff like this can happen:

(AP) The Chungs, immigrants from South Korea, realized their American dream when they opened their dry-cleaning business seven years ago in the nation’s capital. For the past two years, however, they’ve been dealing with the nightmare of litigation: a $65 million lawsuit over a pair of missing pants.

Jin Nam Chung, Ki Chung and their son, Soo Chung, are so disheartened that they’re considering moving back to Seoul, said their attorney, Chris Manning, who spoke on their behalf.

“They’re out a lot of money, but more importantly, incredibly disenchanted with the system,” Manning said. “This has destroyed their lives.”

The lawsuit was filed by a District of Columbia administrative hearings judge, Roy Pearson, who has been representing himself in the case.

Pearson did not return phone calls and e-mails Wednesday from The Associated Press requesting comment.

According to court documents, the problem began in May 2005 when Pearson became a judge and brought several suits for alteration to Custom Cleaners in Northeast Washington, a place he patronized regularly despite previous disagreements with the Chungs. A pair of pants from one suit was not ready when he requested it two days later, and was deemed to be missing.

Pearson asked the cleaners for the full price of the suit: more than $1,000.

So far, not entirely unreasonable if the cleaners did lose the pants. However, here’s where things get loony:

But a week later, the Chungs said the pants had been found and refused to pay. That’s when Pearson decided to sue.

Manning said the cleaners made three settlement offers to Pearson. First they offered $3,000, then $4,600, then $12,000. But Pearson wasn’t satisfied and expanded his calculations beyond one pair of pants.

Because Pearson no longer wanted to use his neighborhood dry cleaner, part of his lawsuit calls for $15,000 _ the price to rent a car every weekend for 10 years to go to another business.

“He’s somehow purporting that he has a constitutional right to a dry cleaner within four blocks of his apartment,” Manning said.

Yes, that would seem to be exactly what Pearson seems to believe. It’s not enough that a settlement offer of twelve times the value of the alleged damage was made; Pearson wanted more. Arrogant, greedy idiots like Pearson who think they’re entitled to such ridiculous restitution even if they’re in the right are a blot on humanity. He thinks he has an opportunity to “clean up” (forgive me, I couldn’t resist), and he’s making the most of it. But how does he justify demanding $65 million. Here’s how:

But the bulk of the $65 million comes from Pearson’s strict interpretation of D.C.’s consumer protection law, which fines violators $1,500 per violation, per day. According to court papers, Pearson added up 12 violations over 1,200 days, and then multiplied that by three defendants.

Much of Pearson’s case rests on two signs that Custom Cleaners once had on its walls: “Satisfaction Guaranteed” and “Same Day Service.”

Based on Pearson’s dissatisfaction and the delay in getting back the pants, he claims the signs amount to fraud.

Pearson has appointed himself to represent all customers affected by such signs, though D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz, who will hear the June 11 trial, has said that this is a case about one plaintiff, and one pair of pants.

I agree with former National Labors Relations Board chief administrative law judge Melvin Welles, who urged that Pearson be disbarred and removed from the bench. Someone who has no sense of proportion and is willing to abuse the system with such a frivolous lawsuit at the very least should not be a judge and arguably should not be a lawyer either.

Comments

  1. #1 Catherina
    May 6, 2007

    I think he needs his sanity tested, too.

  2. I don’t agree that this outrage is a reason to “reform” the tort system, except to make those filing a frivolous suit pay several times more than costs to both their marks and the court system. This jerk should also be disbarred.

    “Reform” as usually used in tort law seems to mean preventing peons from having access to the civil courts. When’s the last time you read about the large majority of trivial suits brought by one corporation against another, sometimes a huge corporation targeting a tiny, family business?

    If the relatively powerless have no ability to get relief in the courts then there is no reason for them to respect the law. Their suspicions about it being biased in favor of the rich and powerful will have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

  3. #3 Joe
    May 6, 2007

    A comedienne, whose name I will remember right after I post, observed that if loss of his pants puts him in a $65 million funk, imagine how elated he must be when they have his pants ready.

    There really needs to be a more efficient system for removing judges at the first sign of mental instability.

  4. #4 Matt
    May 6, 2007

    Unless that case goes somewhere, it really isn’t evidence at all of a “broken tort system” – something that doesn’t actually exist anyway. In fact, it may not even be a tort case at all, it appears to be some kind of breach of contract/deceptive trade practices case.

    I would be careful about finding “evidence” of something you don’t understand where there is none.

    Your last sentence hits it right, however.

  5. #5 Stuart Coleman
    May 6, 2007

    It seems like these stupid lawsuits hurt the plaintiff more often than the defendant (at least when they’re this frivolous). Hopefully he’ll get his comeuppance (being disbarred would be so great).

  6. #6 anonymous
    May 6, 2007

    There is nothing wrong with the system. This is one idiot that needs to be disbarred and removed from the bench. If you look at the worst of these cases, it is almost always some nut job representing himself. No sane lawyer is going to take a case like this because he would only get paid for his work if he won, and it is clear that he won’t win. However, there is no way to prevent individuals from representing themselves and bring suit. Any system that could prevent the non-legally trained individual from filing such a suit would ruin our civil court system and shut out the poor from getting justice.

  7. #7 Orac
    May 6, 2007

    Oh, please. Nothing wrong with the system? Nothing? Really?

    It’s true that this is a particularly egregrious case, but, to me, that someone even could force a case this idiotic as far as it’s gone and and thus endanger the existence of a law-abiding small business for no good other than vindictiveness and greed is an indication that there’s something wrong with the system. This is the sort of thing that should have been resolved in small claims court or thrown out long before it ever got this far. I don’t for one minute buy the hyperbolic argument that ending this sort of abuse would somehow “ruin our civil court system” or “shut out the poor from getting justice.” More often than not, such arguments are made by trial lawyers whose livelihood would be harmed if frivolous lawsuits were made more difficult to file or if penalties for filing such suits (such as making the one who filed what is found to be a frivolous suit) pay both parties’ legal costs) were introduced.

  8. #8 Orac
    May 6, 2007

    Unless that case goes somewhere, it really isn’t evidence at all of a “broken tort system” – something that doesn’t actually exist anyway.

    Actually, this case has already gone “somewhere,” in fact way farther than it should ever have.

  9. #9 Colst
    May 6, 2007

    “A comedienne, whose name I will remember right after I post”

    Paula Poundstone made such a comment on “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”

  10. #10 Rob Knop
    May 6, 2007

    I agree with Orac.

    And, let’s not forget that even if this case gets laughed out of court, the victims of the lawsuit have already suffered from it.

    The mere fact that they already offered to settle for $12,000 is strong evidence that they have been lawyer-bullied beyond anything that should be considered part of a reasonable system. Yes, payment for cleaning of the pants should be free since they were returned two days late… but that’s about it.

    -Rob

  11. #11 Diora
    May 6, 2007

    Unless that case goes somewhere, it really isn’t evidence at all of a “broken tort system”

    Hello? What about all the money that the business lost so far? Even if the case is dismissed tomorrow, who is going to repay the business owners all the money they lost? What about stress and anxiety they suffered?

    Absolutely agree with Orac and Rob. If a cleaner lost something and returned it a week later, what’s the big deal?

    I wonder if he really hopes he’ll get the money. It’s not like small business owners are likely to have anything even remotely approaching 65 million. In fact, they probably have less than a judge. Can they sue him for harassment, emotional distress, pain and suffering…, whatever?

  12. #12 Matt
    May 6, 2007

    “Oh, please. Nothing wrong with the system? Nothing? Really?”

    Nothing in the context of most human systems. Nothing we design, even medicine, is error free.

    “It’s true that this is a particularly egregrious case, but, to me, that someone even could force a case this idiotic as far as it’s gone and and thus endanger the existence of a law-abiding small business for no good other than vindictiveness and greed is an indication that there’s something wrong with the system.”

    What do you mean “forced”? It’s been filed and served – the judge hasn’t even looked at it, nor really can he unless a motion to dismiss has been filed. We don’t know if a motion to dismiss has even been filed.

    It’s not evidence something is wrong with the system, it just means there’s a jackass out there. Is that news? Is that not the same all over the world, in every system?
    What are you talking about “endangering the existence”?

    The “system” has no control over where the guy initially decides to file – besides, the amount is probably greater than the small claims jurisdictional limit.

    “More often than not, such arguments are made by trial lawyers whose livelihood would be harmed if frivolous lawsuits were made more difficult to file or if penalties for filing such suits (such as making the one who filed what is found to be a frivolous suit) pay both parties’ legal costs) were introduced.”

    Every state already has a form of loser pays. Do you have any knowledge at all about what you’re talking about? You don’t even know if it’s actually a tort claim, and you’re pontificating on the ills of tort law?

    It’s interesting that one who continually mocks others, be they autism advocates, intelligent designers, etc. for the lack of factual basis for their claims and the way they spin things they don’t understand, is doing the very same thing here. I guess we all have our blind spots.

  13. #13 Matt
    May 6, 2007

    “Absolutely agree with Orac and Rob. If a cleaner lost something and returned it a week later, what’s the big deal?”

    Hey, I agree with you as well. I’m just not seeing this case as evidence of some larger ill. It’s just a jackass filing a pro se claim. Hopefully he’s sanctioned by the trial judge monetarily and by the state bar.

    You can’t weed out cases before they’re even filed, though. Maybe one day we will be able to, though, and you can play the Tom Cruise character in the legal “Minority Report”.

  14. #14 Rob Knop
    May 6, 2007

    It’s not evidence something is wrong with the system, it just means there’s a jackass out there. Is that news? Is that not the same all over the world, in every system?

    The best social and political systems are designed with the recognition that there are jackasses present. They are designed so that jackasses can’t take over and use the system to magnify their jackassery, and they are designed to be robust with respect to the existence of such jackasses.

    That’s why there are the checks and balances in the US Constitution, for example. Every so often somebody will point out that Americans seem very suspicious of government, and isn’t this sad. However, that suspicion is built into our system. Obviously, it’s not perfect, because jackasses can do really bad things for a long time if (say) they get elected president. But it’s better than it would be if it weren’t possible for (say) an opposing Congress to eventually be elected.

    Our system of civil law and sueage is way too easily taken over and used as a tool for bullying by jackasses like this guy and like the RIAA.

    -Rob

  15. #15 Orac
    May 6, 2007

    Rob,

    You beat me to it. Based on his reaction to this case, I would guess that Matt probably doesn’t view the fact that corporations routinely use SLAPP suits to silence opposition or, as you point out or that the RIAA uses legal bullying to force people to admit “guilt” and settle as any indications that there might be something that needs to be changed in the law or in our legal system. The Chungs being threatened with bankruptcy over a pair of pants, mothers being threatened with huge liabilities because their children downloaded music, or the odd corporation silencing opposition with threats of lawsuits are a small price to pay, I guess.

    I guess I’m just unreasonable for seeing a problem.

  16. #16 Justin Moretti
    May 7, 2007

    “Technicality is the soul of the Law” said a wise, if very cynical, person.

    Personally I think there should be penalties for ridiculous and frivolous suits like this. The defendants have already offered compensation far and above what the goods were worth, even if returned ruined; now that the plaintiff has gotten malicious and vindictive over it, which anyone with common sense can see, he should get nothing. And I agree that it calls into question his fitness to do his job.

    I’ll stand with you on this one, Orac; the law no longer defends the people it was meant to defend. In cases like this, where the power imbalance is gross, both sides should be forced to use a neophyte legal-aid representative. If not, to use an aquatic analogy, the State should pitch in on the side of the minnow and ensure their representation is as good (and as sustained over time) as what the shark can afford.

  17. #17 Matthew
    May 7, 2007

    I guess my concern is that general calls for “reform” will get commandeered by the same by the same large SLAPP-happy corporations, trial lawyers, and other sleazebags who motivated the calls for reform in the first place. We should make sure to ask for a very specific, careful set of changes to avoid a “careful, you might get what you ask for” situation.

    My guess is that one part of the solution will have to be greater discretion on the part of judges, since any intelligent person informed about a case is likely to make a better judgment than a law written before it even happened. More retribution for those wielding bad suits would be good too, since right now it’s a kind of Pascal’s wager (why not sue your dry cleaners for $65M—what’s the worst that can happen to you?).

  18. #18 James
    May 7, 2007

    This is just ridiculous, and forms the basis of the poplaur expression (outside the US) “only in America”. In no other Western country would a plaintiff have the unmitigated gall to sue for such an amount.

    The way to reduce this type of extortion-by-law is to increase the consistentcy of civil court rulings and awards and allowing rulings for costs agianst vexatious plaintiffs.

    As far as consistency goes, I would try to get juries out of civil courts. I understand in the SU there is a constitutional right to juries even in civil cases (if you want a civil jury in New Zealand you have to pay for it), but allowing judges to set awards rather then juries would bring much needed consistency, reducing the risk of contesting a lawsuit.

  19. #19 Matt
    May 7, 2007

    “The best social and political systems are designed with the recognition that there are jackasses present. They are designed so that jackasses can’t take over and use the system to magnify their jackassery, and they are designed to be robust with respect to the existence of such jackasses.”

    Show me a system that prevents people from filing claims before they even file them. Please. Tell me where in this world this magical system where the court clerk reads the minds of every potential litigant exists. There are crazy pro se filed and dismissed in courts all over this country daily. This case hasn’t “taken over” the system, it’s just been filed, and for a ridiculous sum. Again, I think the guy should be sanctioned by the bar and the immediate court. I just don’t think it’s proof of Orac’s theory – particularly since he doesn’t even know if it’s a tort claim at all.

    I have no more tolerance for objectively “frivolous” suits than you guys, and I am certainly opposed to corporate entities having even more power than they do. But that’s what “tort reform” is about – more power to the powerful, and keeping them from having to face the consequences of their actions before 12 neutral people.

    Incidentally, James, studies have shown that judges agree with juries the vast majority of the time. I don’t know why allowing a single elected representative, who may or may not be susceptible to political pressure, to decide a case, is any more fair than 12 citizens.

  20. #20 Ratel
    May 7, 2007

    In fact it does not seem to be a tort claim in the traditional sense of the word. I assume that it is actually a contract claim and a statutory claim under a DC consumer protection law that seems to permit a private cause of action for consumer fraud.

    That said, it is highly unlikely that this claim will make it to trial.

    On the subject of the RIAA, what most people seem to forget is, no matter what you think of the state of copyright law in the United States, most if not all of the people who have been sued are theives. It is that simple. It seems odd that people think the legal system should not be available to someone who has had their property taken just because they happen to be a large corporation and the people who are doing the taking are at a power disadvantage.

    In the United States, judges do have the power to reduce damage awards by juries and they routinely do so. Everyone “remembers” that McDonalds had to pay multi-millions of dollars to some lady who got some coffee in her lap. What they forget is that McDonalds knew their coffee was burning people, the woman suffered third degree burns to her genitals, and the judge reduced the jury award and the parties eventually settled out of court.

  21. #21 Graculus
    May 7, 2007

    most if not all of the people who have been sued are theives. It is that simple. It seems odd that people think the legal system should not be available to someone who has had their property taken

    This is ridiculous. It is not theft and no property is taken. The worst/best you can say is that they infringed IP. Whether or not the RIAA and MPAA are Stygian pools of ooze spawned from the depths of Hell is irrelevant on this point.

  22. #22 Justin Moretti
    May 7, 2007

    Graculus, it IS theft – they are getting something for nothing, that they really ought to have bought in the shop. It’s as if they ran off with the CD without paying.

    That’s for music currently on the market, and on the available back catalogue. For those that aren’t, where buying it is impossible or close thereto, I have no problem at all with file sharing/swapping.

    All that being said, the penalty for illegally downloading a song should be payment of what it costs to buy it, or for every dozen or part thereof, say, the cost of a full album (about A$30 these days). It should not be a company or association doing the heavy and threatening prison and lawsuits for impossible-to-meet sums on a first-off basis. “Pay up and we’ll forget you did it” should be the motto, and the moneys should be payable direct to the artist(s).

  23. #23 KevinC
    May 7, 2007

    Why is this family broke from this case? I think that their lawyer has taken them to the cleaners (pun intended), that is the real injustice in this case. They should have ignored it and represented themselves in court and let the judge throw it out like it seems he will.

    “. . . though D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz, who will hear the June 11 trial, has said that this is a case about one plaintiff, and one pair of pants.”

  24. #24 Matt
    May 7, 2007

    “I guess I’m just unreasonable for seeing a problem.”

    You’re not unreasonable for having a disagreement with particular cases, you’re just unreasonable to extrapolate it into some broader statement about tort claims, when you clearly don’t understand what you’re talking about. None of the complaints you have appear to apply to tort claims.

    And if you don’t like what the RIAA is doing, that’s a matter of statutory copyright law – take it up with your legislator. The legal system can’t change the wording of those statutes.

  25. #25 speedwell
    May 7, 2007

    “…this is a case about one plaintiff, and one pair of pants.”

    Judge Kravitz is wrong. It looks like a trivial case about one asshole and a pair of hideously expensive trous. But the plaintiff is too smart to make himself look that ridiculous unless there’s a larger reason.

    The clue is that “Pearson has appointed himself to represent all customers affected by such signs…”. He’s setting himself up to be the next multi-million-dollar class-action shark. He picked a defenseless target this time so he could get a quick legal decision to use as precedent to go after the big guys with deep pockets. His asking for $65 million is a posture to encourage future judges and juries to believe that consumer protection suits of this nature can legitimately be worth that amount of money. It’s also a psychological ploy, a shock tactic, to focus the court’s attention and energy on the amount of money due to him and to make a decision in his favor seem like the trivial, obvious part of the issue.

    Of course, to screw a couple of comparative church mice just to make a point is the work of a conscienceless creep who ought not to be within a hundred miles of a place that pretends to serve justice and redress grievances.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I worked for lawyers, and I read a lot of law blogs. I don’t know whether to be more horrified that people can’t see what’s really going on, or thrilled that most people can’t even think of such a thing.

  26. #26 DancingSamurai
    May 7, 2007

    “Graculus, it IS theft – they are getting something for nothing, that they really ought to have bought in the shop. It’s as if they ran off with the CD without paying.”

    Umm, no. There is a clear difference legally and morally between theft (taking the property of someone else with the intent to take it away temporarily or permanently from its rightful owner) and copyright infringement (copying a government-protected piece of intellectual property without the copyright holder’s consent). One leaves the owner without a physical product or money for it, the other one leaves the ‘owner’ with at most a lost potential sale. As a consequence, one is a criminal offense (crime against society), whereas another is a civil offense.

    Even were I to concede equivalence of the above (which I certainly do not do), I often ask how people can justify the fact that (at least here in Canada) the penalty for copying an album’s worth of songs is a minimum fine of $3000 (can go as high as $20,000), whereas the maximum fine for shoplifting is $1000. At least you have pointed out this concern, Justin.

  27. #27 ArtK
    May 7, 2007

    According to Ovewrlawyered, Pearson no longer shows up on the Washington DC Office of Administrative Hearings web site.

  28. #28 MattXIV
    May 7, 2007

    olvlzl/anon./other Matt,

    This is actually a great example of a serious problem with the civil court system, namely that plantiff with meritless or trivial case can force the defendants to accept an unfavorable settlement or settle a claim they could have defended themselves against with the implicit threat of gaming the system to run up the defendant’s legal costs. Allowing the winner to recoup their legal costs from the loser helps somewhat with this problem, but it does little for those who are too liquidity constrained to maintain representation until the costs are recouped or risk even a small chance of a loss. In this case, the plantiff/asshole has already passed up a $12,000 settlement when he isn’t likely to get much more than the retail price of the pants back even if the cleaners had actually lost his pants.

  29. #29 Ubu Walker
    May 7, 2007

    Orac: I am going to echo the sentiments of most of the posters here today who conclude that the tort system is not broken.

    I understand that many medical doctors feel emotionally and financially abused by the current medical malpractice system where patients injured by doctor’s mistakes collect seemingly disproportionate and unfair awards in court or by settlement, which in part leads to higher insurance rates.

    I don’t think anyone disagrees that if someone is injured by somebody’s negligence, the negligent person should put that person back into the position they should have been in, if they hadn’t been injured in the first place.

    However, lots of people feel entitled to more than restitution, and want a windfall from punitive damages, especially when a mistake was particularly heinous. This is understandable, since it is physical damage caused by somebody they trusted.

    The way to fix the problem is eliminate the insurance companies, and move to a “no-fault” malpractice system where people injured by their doctors are compensated by the State. Trials would only be necessary when the malpractice rises beyond ordinary negligence.

    That means higher taxes, and less take home pay for everyone. Lawyers already have a victim’s compensation fund for the times where some unscrupulous lawyer raids a client’s trust account, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea for doctors either.

    Part of the reason why other countries have less problems with lawsuits is that the state takes care of people who are injured and maimed by other people’s negligence, in the form of social welfare. No need to bother to go to court to get $ to pay the medical bill when the state picks up the tab.

    The question is who pays, and how much. Such is justice.

  30. #30 James
    May 8, 2007

    Matt (post right after my last):

    I had forgotten that you elect judges in the US. That seems like a very bad idea to me, once you make a position elected then it will be filled by a politician, and that makes the judiciary too easily swayed by popular sentiment.

    When you say judges agree with juries most of the time do you mean agree on who is lable or on the size of the damages? For me its really the size of the award that is most important, rather than the basis for the decision so removing that from juries is more important than eliminating civil juries entirely.

  31. #31 Matt
    May 8, 2007

    James,

    If a politician appoints those judges, then you have the potential for abuse via lobbyists of that politician. Given the alternatives, I’ll take popular opinion.

    I mean on the liability, although given the infrequency with which the trial judges reduce the awards, arguably the damages as well.

    Are you contending juries are awarding disproportionate awards on a regular basis? After all, the average tort verdict is only $30K.

  32. #32 Heraldblog
    May 9, 2007

    Most of the crying over a “broken tort system” comes from businesses who feel victimized by customers. But in reality, most torts against businesses are brought by other businesses. Also, I’m very skeptical of the anecdotes brought forth to supposedly prove abuse of process. Remember the old lady who spilled hot coffee on her crotch? There’s more to the story that what the National Republican Committee will have you believe.

  33. #33 wrg
    May 10, 2007

    My guess is that one part of the solution will have to be greater discretion on the part of judges, since any intelligent person informed about a case is likely to make a better judgment than a law written before it even happened.

    I used to be inclined to think that way, back when I was optimistic about the trustworthiness and wisdom of individuals. However, we need “the rule of law” because we can’t always trust our authorities to govern wisely and well. Although there’s a benefit to giving judges the flexibility to handle details unanticipated by legislation, we must be careful of poor decisions influenced by whim, prejudice, or corruption.