Dry cleaner wins missing pants case
By Lubna Takruri
A judge ruled Monday that no pair of pants is worth $54 million, rejecting a lawsuit that took a dry cleaner's promise of "Satisfaction Guaranteed" to its most litigious extreme.
Roy L. Pearson became a worldwide symbol of legal abuse by seeking jackpot justice from a simple complaint — that a neighborhood dry cleaners lost the pants from a new suit and tried to give him a pair that were not his.
His claim, reduced from $67 million, was based on a strict interpretation of the city's consumer protection law — which imposes fines of $1,500 per violation, per day — as well as damages for inconvenience, mental anguish and attorney's fees for representing himself.
But District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff ruled that the owners of Custom Cleaners did not violate the consumer protection law by failing to live up to Pearson's expectations of the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign once displayed in the store window.
"A reasonable consumer would not interpret 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' to mean that a merchant is required to satisfy a customer's unreasonable demands," the judge wrote.
Bartnoff wrote that Pearson, an administrative law judge, also failed to prove that the pants the dry cleaner tried to return were not the pants he took in.
Bartnoff ordered Pearson to pay clerical court costs of about $1,000 to defendants Soo Chung, Jin Nam Chung and Ki Y. Chung. A motion to recover the Chungs' tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees will be considered later.
"Judge Bartnoff has spoken loudly in suggesting that, while consumers should be protected, abusive lawsuits like this will not be tolerated," the Chung's attorney, Chris Manning, said in a statement. "Judge Bartnoff has chosen common sense and reasonableness over irrationality and unbridled venom."
Speaking to reporters outside their dry cleaners, the Chungs said they held no hard feelings toward Pearson. "If he wants to continue using our services, then, yes, he is welcome," Soo Chung, a Korean immigrant, said through a translator.
Pearson, who came to court during the two-day trial earlier this month carrying the offending pair of pants in a suit bag, did not respond to a call and an e-mail seeking comment.
The case began in 2005 when Pearson became a judge and brought several suits for alterations to Custom Cleaners in Washington. A pair of pants from one suit was missing when he requested it two days later.
Pearson asked the cleaners for the full price of the suit: more than $1,000.
But a week later, the Chungs said the pants had been found and refused to pay. Pearson said those were not his pants and decided to sue.
Over the course of the litigation, the Chung's said they made three settlement offers — $3,000, then $4,600, then $12,000 — all rejected.
The case garnered international attention and renewed calls for litigation reform.
"This case was giving American justice a black eye around the world, and it was all the more upsetting because it was a judge and lawyer who was bringing the suit," said Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor.
Rothstein said Monday's ruling "restores one's confidence in the legal system."
I wonder if these were the pants they lost? -- Coco LaRue