Roy Pearson pants suit: the bottom line

by Ted Frank on June 18, 2007

Our editor, Walter Olson, in today’s Wall Street Journal:

A few observations:
• Phrases like “Do you realize I’m a lawyer?” uttered in the course of routine disputes with storekeepers, neighbors, school principals, etc., probably account for more of the legal profession’s aggregate unpopularity than any number of scandals in the actual representation of clients.

• David and Goliath talk notwithstanding, legal action is often a powerful dis-equalizer of the playing field, as those who know how to work the system fleece the outsiders, the novices, the distracted and the trustful.

• Pretty much every other advanced country would have afforded the Chungs better protection against a lawsuit like this. Under proper “loser-pays” rules, the Chungs would be correctly construed as having won even if Mr. Pearson proves damages of, say, $1,000, since they would have prevailed on the actual issues in dispute. D.C. does have a weak “offer of judgment” rule that might let the Chungs recover some miscellaneous court costs — but not their major expense, lawyers’ fees — if Mr. Pearson loses or wins but a token sum. So even if they win, they’re bound to lose.

• The other source of Mr. Pearson’s power — his ability to hold the threat of huge penalties over the Chungs’ heads — arises from consumer laws that encourage complainants to multiply the stated penalty for a single infraction by the whole universe of a business’s clientele, or by all the days in the calendar, with no need to prove actual injury.

This sort of mechanical damage-multiplication has been a key engine in shakedown scandals in California (where roving complainants have mass-mailed demand letters to small businesses over technical infractions); in “junk-fax” litigation demanding billions from hapless merchants in Texas, Illinois and elsewhere; and in important sectors of litigation aimed at bigger businesses, including claims against credit-card providers and purveyors of “light” cigarettes. Whole dockets’-worth of opportunistic litigation would dry up if we revised these laws so as to require a showing of actual injury. Doing so would require overcoming epic resistance from the litigation lobby.

It’s nice to see that even the organized plaintiffs bar piously deplores Mr. Pearson’s abuse of the law. It would be even nicer if they agreed to stop opposing reforms that would give the Chungs of the world a fighting chance the next time around.

Earlier: June 17; June 14; Apr. 26; et cetera.

{ 10 comments }

1 GML 06.18.07 at 11:57 am

is there a legal defense fund for the Chungs to combat this jack ass?

2 Peter Nordberg 06.18.07 at 3:08 pm

The spilled coffee having grown a bit stale, a new and even more anomalous parable is lovingly cultivated.

3 Jack 06.18.07 at 3:23 pm

If the judge were white and the dry cleaner black, every race baiter in the country would be on this. As it is, nobody cares when a black hassles an asian. So sad.

4 Peter Nordberg 06.18.07 at 4:02 pm

Nobody cares? This has garnered enormous attention.

5 Bill Stepp 06.18.07 at 8:34 pm

Why wasn’t the suit thrown (or better laughed) out of court? Is there something about the legal system that prevents these suits from being dismissed before the ink on them is dry?

6 Amy Alkon 06.18.07 at 10:44 pm

Regarding junk faxers, and showing actual damage…how do you suggest I collect for the fax toner and work interruption? Also, I was forced to buy fax software to replace my fax machine simply to avoid being awakened or disturbed in the middle of a productive writing jag by junk faxers.

Do you likewise suggest that a mugger who got away with only a dollar does only a dollar’s worth of jail time?

Finally, these aren’t “hapless merchants” junk-faxing you — they’re crafty merchants trying to stick you with their marketing costs. Junk faxing is a form of theft, and it will only stop when it becomes less lucrative to steal others’ time and hijack their phone lines than paying the full cost of getting an ad in front of a potential customer.

7 Ted 06.19.07 at 5:54 am

The issue with junk faxing is, as we have documented several times, that the law is overbroad enough to bankrupt innocent victims defrauded by unscrupulous middlemen, while doing very little to drive the junk fax scamsters themselves out of business.

Fly-by-night operation X snows low-level employees of A, B, and C to purchase junk-fax services. X squirrels the money away offshore and then sends the illegal faxes; A, B, and C are bankrupted by the resulting lawsuits, while X shuts itself down, and opens fly-by-night operation Y. Shampoo, rinse, repeat. This is documented in much more detail in July, but you know this already, since you commented there, too.

“A dollar’s worth of jail time for mugging” isn’t the right analogy. Leave aside the fact that mugging is a violent crime, and is punished for the violence rather than for the value of the individual theft. The comparable analogy to the junk fax laws would be permitting victims of muggings to file civil suits against any business that unknowingly accepted the proceedings of the mugging in selling goods or services to the mugger.

There’s no reason that damages for junk faxes could not be capped at the greater of $10,000 or economic damages.

8 CR 06.19.07 at 9:37 pm

Look, in a clear cut case such as this, the Chungs offered to settle. Several times. They admit they lost the pants. SO WHAT. They offered to replace them at about ten times what they cost!
A pair of pants is not a family member or a pet.

There is a sense of proportion missing from this. I am a plaintiff in a civil suit; but I am on the Chungs’ side all the way.

I don’t begrudge the defense the right to defend themselves; what I detest and despise is violations of ethics, lies
and manipulation because of
wanting to avoid responsibility. The Chungs have not done this.

Punt Mr. Pearson to the curb, get him another job at the public teat. That should shut him up.

9 Chocolate Cowgirl 06.20.07 at 12:56 am

From the article the lawyer (bully?) in question is suing for a weekend rental of car so that he can drive to a different dry cleaner! Since when is one entitled to a dry cleaner within walking distance? I hope this case gets thrown out and the Chung’s rewarded with expenses. What is particularly offensive about this is that a non-productive lawyer is suing a productive family business that actually contributes to society in a positive manner. After the Chung’s win i hope they counter sue – i would contribute to such a fund.

10 Jenn 06.21.07 at 5:33 pm

GML, you can donate at Custom Cleaners Defense Fund (http://www.customcleanersdefensefund.com)

Comments on this entry are closed.