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May 7, 2007

The scent of astroturf
Posted by Teresa at 07:00 PM * 62 comments

Miniver Cheevy, who has a pretty good sense of smell, thinks there’s something dubious, astroturfy, and tort-reformish about the sudden emergence of a news story about a guy who’s suing his drycleaner for $65 million after the drycleaner lost the guy’s pants.

It smells funny to me, too. Here’s the beginning of the press release the American Tort Reform Association either rushed out or already had prepared when the story broke:

Reappointment to New 10-Year Term, at Taxpayers’ Expense, Could Start Tomorrow

Washington, DC, May 01, 2007 — The American Tort Reform Association yesterday delivered a letter to four District of Columbia officials, urging them to consider carefully the “judicial temperament” of an administrative law judge who is seeking reappointment while suing a local dry cleaner -– over a lost pair of pants -– for more than $65 million.

“His pants were found long ago and are readily available to him,” explained ATRA president Sherman Joyce. “What may no longer be available to him, unless he withdraws his lawsuit, is a reputation as a jurist with appropriate judicial temperament.”

As recently reported by The Washington Post, FOX News Channel and other local and national media outlets, D.C. administrative law judge Roy Pearson Jr. has sued Custom Cleaners in Northeast D.C. under the District’s Consumer Protection and Procedures Act, alleging among other things that window signs advertising “Satisfaction Guaranteed” and “Same Day Service” fraudulently deceived customers.

“The District’s consumer protection act and many others in states across the country are well-intentioned but loosely worded,” Joyce continued. “They were crafted largely in the late-1960s and into the 1970s, before personal injury litigation was industrialized by the trial bar in the 1980s, and Judge Pearson’s lawsuit appears to be a somewhat typical, if wholly outrageous example of the exploitation such laws are increasingly subject to these days.

That press release is so full of code that it ought to be run through a compiler. Meanwhile, if you don’t know why Miniver Cheevy and I both pronounce “tort reform” as though it were a bad word, read this post.

So. Anybody have any idea what’s going on there? I’m guessing there’s either more to the story, or the guy’s simply gone dotty. Either way, ATRA’s pumping it for all it’s worth.

Comments on The scent of astroturf:
#1 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:02 PM:

That judge's name sounds awfully familiar.

#2 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:43 PM:

'Tort reform' is big business trying to persuade the common herd that their rights don't need protecting. Of course, we would never be harmed by the actions of any large corporation, so we don't need protecting from them; and they would never do anything wrong, so they don't need to be punished. Slavery is freedom. Strength is ignorance. Stalemate is victory.

#3 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:47 PM:

From Roy Miller at Maryland Injury Lawyer Blog:

If Roy Pearson did not exist, advocates of tort reform would invent him.


Why do I say that tort reform advocates would invent Pearson? This is a consumer claim not a personal injury claim. But, believe me, personal injury lawyers face the consequences of this kind of nonsense every single time we pick a jury. This makes jurors more skeptical of people bringing claims of any kind, including accident and medical malpractice cases. Personal injury victims deserve a jury who is willing to evaluate a case with no preconceived notions. The publicity generated by this kind of case makes getting that fair jury more difficult. [emphasis added]

On that same page, in the comments, there's a link to a document in Judge Pearson's divorce case. He seems to be a nasty, stubborn, obsessive-compulsive litigator.

#4 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:51 PM:

Not to state the obvious, but anyone can sue anyone for any amount for any reason at any time, pretty much.

What you can't do is get more than 5 seconds in front of a judge for ridiculous cases. I'd assume you also suffer sanctions for filing a frivolous case, but IANAL.

Now, with that said, if the plaintiff in this case is a judge of any sort, and the facts are anything like the ones described in the story, then he plainly is unfit to continue to be a judge. Judges should not be total crackpots. It's hard to see any conditions under which a person suing their local dry-cleaners for $65 million is not a crackpot, and it's not hard for me to believe that such a crackpot exists, so I don't find it hard to believe the basic facts of the story, though I'd certainly like to see them checked out further.

But the system already has a pretty good way of responding to crackpots. It has judges and sanctions and contempt of court and all the rest of it. There is zero chance that this dry cleaning business is going to pay out $65 million, even if the other facts are being reported accurately, and that ought to be the second sentence in any news report written by a conscientious reporter. Including that fact would then completely undermine the ATRA's attempt to paint this as part of why "tort reform" is needed, since it would show how the current system resists frivolous lawsuits.

Doesn't make such a fun story that way, though, does it?

#5 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:51 PM:

And to find Roy Miller's commentary, I had to go nearly a hundred links deep in the search string generated by "Judge Roy Pearson Jr." Almost everything previous seemed to be simple reiterations of the press release, with crunchy, zesty expressions of outrage added in a lot of cases. For what it's worth.

#6 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 07:51 PM:

The Washington Post article says the case has been going on "for years".

#7 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 08:17 PM:

No, this is a real case, and the guy appears to be a loon.

I'd assume you also suffer sanctions for filing a frivolous case

Worse than that - personal-injury litigation is run on a contingency-fee basis, where the lawyer bears all the costs of the litigation unless and until there's a settlement or verdict paid. That means you'd be stupid to take a frivolous case, because your chances of getting any money back are tiny. There are some scamsters who think they can get money by frightening people into settling--but, a la the Trevor Group, they don't last long. Attorneys can not only be sanctioned money, but suffer professional sanctions, or worse.

And it's not merely "frivolous" litigation. A valuable case is not worth taking on a contingency-fee basis if the eventual recovery is going to be small. That is the reason that the Chamber of Commerce and its toadies push "tort reform". They want to reduce the value of every lawsuit so that lawyers will not take those cases. Since the average Joe can't afford to hire a lawyer except through a contigency-fee arrangement, Big Business is free to screw Joe as much and as often as they please, confident that Joe can't do a damn thing about it.

I once snottily told a rather well-known "tort reform" lawyer that he obviously didn't believe consumers should ever be allowed to sue businesses. He replied,in all seriousness, that he felt lawsuits should be allowed to proceed if they involved malice. (To translate, that means if a business is sloppy, selfish, careless or negligent, too bad for you; only if they hurt you on purpose should they have to make it up to you.)

#8 ::: Connie H. ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 08:19 PM:

FWIW, Obscurestore was citing this story last week -- it sounds more like that the tort-reformers have seized on a crazy guy story.

#9 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 08:33 PM:

One thing that I do believe is broken about the current system is that it is possible for a lawyer or law firm with an axe to grind to harass any non-lawyer virtually without end on the thinnest of frivolous grounds.

There's a case in Florida where the CFO of the national law firm Boies, Schiller, and Flexner received the equivalent of over $5 million in donated legal fees from the firm (15,000 hours) in the course of a nine-year court battle against the gardener whose business she had tried to buy. He's been representing himself; she's had $5m in donated legal assistance from a major national law firm, plus $400K in donated cash payments to another law firm, despite nine court sanctions against her side from six different judges.

Here are a couple links on Groklaw where I read about it:

I agree with your suspicions as to what's really going on in a lot of the claims that the system is broken - the "tort reformers" want to remove people's right to sue over real harm done to them. On the other hand, the current civil system really is pretty broken as to what happens when one party has access to deep pockets, whether it's the plaintiff or (likely more often) the defendant.

#10 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 08:47 PM:

A couple quick thoughts:

First, just to play devil's advocate, e have no way of knowing what happenned before Judge Pearson started the suit. It is certainly possible (although, I admit, not likely) that the cleaner's did lose the pants, did subsequently "find" a pair of pants that weren't his (I've had a similar experience with a shirt).

If at that point the cleaner's gave the judge a hard time, or especially told him "tough he couldn't do anything about it" it would be easy to see how he could start the suit to "teach them a lesson." Especially if he's stressed already from being stuck in a messy divorce, and is (as Bruce indicated in #3) a nasty, stubborn kind of guy. The cleaner, once stuck in the suit, is certainly not going to say "Yeah, I started it"

But, do I thin k that's necessarily what happenned? No, probably not.

Yeah, I expect any judge who gets the case to toss it. I expect if Pearson isn't a total nutbag he calmed down and is trying to figure if it's more humiliating to say "I overreacted, I'm dropping the case." or to wait and let it get thrown out.

While the Tort Reform people probably are on the bandwagon, I'm not sure the case is a set-up. It is a truism that bad news gets ratings, and the past ten to twenty years has certainly made the "stupid lawsuit" story a news staple. [Hot coffee anyone?] The media may be following this idiocy solely from that perspective, and the Tort folks thanking their respective gods.

Also, as far as Mythago's point in # 7, the lawyer may bear all cost of the litigation, but one of the news stories said Pearson is representing himself in the case. So, no "extra" legal fees, unlike the dry cleaners. So, if he has a mad-on over them, and thinks he has the ability to outlast the dry cleaners, this could be an attempt to drive them out of business in revenge for a real or perceived affront.

Again, not that he's not a loon, but he's a loner loon.

#11 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 09:10 PM:

Notice how everybody is agreeing that the system is broken?

#12 ::: Chris Adams ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 09:13 PM:

One thing which gets lost among the "evil big company" chatter is that the people most at risk are small-to-medium businesses - they don't have a large legal department to discourage suing, the cost is more likely to be a significant chunk of their revenue and the case probably won't get attention from anyone else. Big businesses certainly do enjoy advantages under the system but they're also likely to get class-action cases simply because they have more customers to take abuse.

We used to see this with the patent sharks: they'd buy some incredibly bad patent which they claimed covered all web pages or online shopping (actual examples) and would then look for companies like our clients who tended to be profitable bricks-and-mortar companies whose web operations weren't important enough to justify the expense of a court case. Collecting $5-50,000 from a bunch of little guys was much easier than suing someone like who could really afford to fight back.

There are two changes I'd make to the legal system: the first would simply be ensuring that punitive damages went to a third-party. In addition to reducing the "jackpot" prospect it makes more sense from a social perspective to have the money fund whoever is actually dealing with the mess (e.g. the public health services or environmental cleanup groups who are probably dealing with all of the people who didn't sue).

The other would involving improving the professional misconduct system to make sure there was a serious risk of disbarment for lawyers who bring blatantly abusive cases, which are not always strawmen.

#13 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 09:15 PM:

My thoughts on this:

A sane response would be small-claims court for the cost of the pants plus court costs.
$65 million is not a sane response.
ATRA is using the case for their own ends.

#14 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 09:45 PM:

The Washington Post ran a story on this a couple of weeks ago. The $65 million figure comes from DC's consumer protection law, which provides for damages of $1,500 per violation per day. Pearson figures there are three defendants, times 1200 days he's been complaining, times $1500.

#15 ::: Kate Nepveu ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 09:48 PM:

The problem with crackpot lawsuits is not that the people bringing them can get big money out of them.

The problem with crackpot lawsuits is that the people bringing them either (1) have fundamental personal problems, frequently of a neurochemical nature, or (2) incorrectly *think* they can get big money out of them. Or both.

Pearson is a crackpot.

#16 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 09:52 PM:

Avram @ 13

Pearson has already spent nearly four years on this? That pretty much says he's insane and needs to be taken off the bench. A pair of pants is not worth that much. (And I very much doubt that there was malice on the part of the drycleaner. Malice on Pearson's part, that I'll buy.)

#17 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 10:09 PM:

So, if he has spent four years on this "frivolity", why has this story made the national media this week?

#18 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 10:20 PM:

It actually made the national media a couple of weeks ago; the reason, AFAICT from the news media coverage, is that the case is about to go to trial, which gives you a nice hook for the crazy story.

#19 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 10:20 PM:

Jon @ 17

Well, at some blogs, the answer to that would be 'what's going on this week that the White House people would like us to ignore?'

#20 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 10:23 PM:

OK, he's a loon.

Unfortunately, he's apparently a connected loon, and the Washington Insiders want to keep him sitting where he is now.

Does the fact that a loon can be sufficiently connected to do horrendous damage to ordinary people strike anyone who's been reading the papers in the past twenty years as a shock?

#21 ::: Evan Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 10:30 PM:

Here in Texas, we may be seeing the start of a "tort reform" rebound. I'm told that many supporters of the legislation that all but wiped out medical malpractice suits in this state were lawyers who have realized, a bit late, that the law also removed the need to retain those same lawyers to defend those suits.

#22 ::: Samantha Joy ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 10:38 PM:

Graydon (#11) -- Yes, everyone is agreeing that the system is broken.

But unless you include the tort killers "reformers", I also don't see alternatives being offered.

#23 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2007, 10:53 PM:

Chris, there is no "jackpot". Punitive damages are extremely hard to prove and are extremely rare; no sane lawyer (sharky or otherwise) is going to bet next week's mortgage on getting punitives, even in a case where the defendant's behavior was truly awful. As for the professional conduct system, it varies from state to state, but bringing frivolous lawsuits in order to extort money is a really good way to get disbarred.

Kate correctly notes that one of the unintended side effects of the anti-tort brigade is that people who would previously have been happy being 'made whole' now think that a reasonable settlement offer is ridiculous--why, they just heard on the news that some lady put contraceptive jelly on toast and won a hundred scrillion dollars, so damned if they're going to accept [insert reasonable settlement offer here] from BigCorp!

(Also, what Evan said. My colleagues on the defense side of the courtroom aren't exactly darning their socks in a freezing attic room because they can't afford to live better.)

#24 ::: Jim Satterfield ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 01:06 AM:

I think it goes something like this:

Businesses are over-regulated. They need relief from regulations. After all, if they really screw up someone will sue them and fear of those lawsuits will keep them on the straight and narrow.

Businesses are being sued too much. We need to protect them from these frivolous lawsuits. Obviously the only way to do that is to make certain that no lawsuit, no matter how justified, can possibly penalize the corporation enough to make good money from the lawsuit (It's mere coincidence that this insures no punishment that a large corporation would find meaningful. Honest!!).

People who believe in tort reform see no contradiction or problem in putting the two together.

#25 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 01:13 AM:

Kate @ #15:

I think there's a broader problem than simply crazy plaintiffs. It's the asymmetry of costs in a lot of these cases. I doubt very much that Judge Pearson expects to get $67 million out of this, but it's costing him virtually nothing but the waste of his own time to pursue this. If he feels vindictive, why shouldn't he pursue the suit. Not so for the Chungs; it's costing them real money. One can only hope that the judge he goes before orders him to pay all their legal costs, but that is unfortunately rare even with completely frivolous lawsuits. Also, there are legal maneuvers where the plaintiff can withdraw the suit suddenly at certain stages and avoid the risk of being ordered to pay costs.

Another big case of abuse of the legal system by deep-pocketed defendants just occurred to me: the RIAA shakedown lawsuits. It would seem very few of them meet the legal standards of scrutiny that would be required to win even in a civil suit, but you can't plausibly defend yourself against a lawsuit like that for less than $3000. (That's 20 hours of a relatively *cheap* lawyer's time, which is nothing.) Even if the defendant is completely innocent, as in the cases where they've got entirely the wrong person, unless the defendant finds a law firm that will handle it pro bono, as a few are, it's going to cost them a lot more money to defend it than to just pay the extortionists. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, are cranking these out with boilerplate. Of course, this doesn't fit the tort reformists' storyline.

#26 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 01:32 AM:

The dry cleaners offered him three amounts of money, starting at $5K and ending at $12K for that damn pair of pants (I forget the middle number). The judge is doing this because he can.

#27 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 01:58 AM:

Oddly, a previous comment fell into the Great Moderation Machine.

I think there's a broader problem than simply crazy plaintiffs. It's the asymmetry of costs in a lot of these cases.

By "these cases" I assume you mean cases where the plaintiff is pro se (representing his/herself rather than being represented by a lawyer). Those aren't really common, and they're certainly not the cases the Chamber of Commerce is attacking: the "vexatious litigant" just doesn't make as good ad copy as greedy trial lawyers do.

Jim, remember that those people also hide behind the pretense that The Market will solve all ills. An evil business will be punished by The Market because nobody will ever do business with them again. It's like karma, only with expensive Scotch.

#28 ::: Jim Satterfield ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 02:02 AM:

Correct, mythago. Because of course those businesses will never call up their friends who own the media outlet and suggest that advertising revenues will suffer if their business suffers. Never. Heaven forbid.

#29 ::: Laurel ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 05:11 AM:

And in the meantime, a wonderful young couple I know is contemplating filing bankruptcy: Hospital A perpetrated a botched appendectomy on uninsured-because-he's-in-the-arts-and-can't-afford-insurance him, and Hospital B cleaned up the septic aftermath of botched appendectomy...but even though neither he nor his wife (also in the arts) has a significant income, neither hospital is willing to work them on a hardship-case basis. And, of course, they can't find a lawyer willing to take on a malpractice suit against Hospital A.

And some idiot judge has managed to keep an obviously frivolous lawsuit alive for FOUR YEARS?

I'm so mad I could bite nails and spit tacks.

#30 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 07:09 AM:

#19: Uh, yeah. So, what do they want to discredit? Any prominent lawsuit against Republican-related organizations in the news recently? Or is there something big coming?

This is baffling me. It's usually obvious, like the Sheryl Crow toilet paper story. This time it isn't.

#31 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 08:50 AM:

Graydon #11:

I think it's fair to say everyone agrees the legal system is *flawed*. There are things we'd like to fix. Further, it looks to me (I'm no expert) like some of those flaws are accurately described by the tort-reform crowd. But if you give those guys the chance to fix the system, their interest isn't in eliminating the flaws that sometimes make the system unfair for small or large businesses, it's in skewing the system toward those businesses.

I know doctors who are seriously worried about malpractice lawsuits, and believe that defensive medicine decreases the quality of medical care. I know businessmen who have fought off frivolous shareholder lawsuits. I have more direct experience with the patent system, which, as applied to software and cryptography and business methods (!), is a complete, innovation-stifling, disaster.

I think these issues are real. It's just that the solution to them needs to be focused on fixing the problems, not on skewing the system in favor of, say, big companies with legal departments who are defendents in lawsuits. I also don't really have any idea how to fix this system, and I don't know for sure that there are any attainable fixes that wouldn't make things worse. I hope someone does know.

#32 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 09:07 AM:

#29 Jon:

You seem to be working under a model that says that there's one evil Republican conspiracy which spins the media, on orders from Karl Rove. I think there are hundreds of groups doing this, and that they're mostly apolitical, since they're hired guns representing industry groups or single-issue grops, and since they will happily give money to either Democrats or Republicans, whichever is more likely to advance their cause.

This is presumably being pushed by some tort reform lobby or other. Ayn Rand had a quote that was something like "art is selective focus." (She then went on to say that photography couldn't be art, which seemed to me to imply that she had missed her own point.) But it applies better to propoganda in the US: Propoganda is largely selective focus--find some rare event, blow it up to a national issue, and count on the fact that hardly anyone has an intuition for the real commonness of events that get reported in the news.

This kind of weird statistical warping is what news media *do*--dog-bites-man never makes the papers, but man-bites-dog always does. It's also a powerful tool for spinning the public picture of reality. It's why people are more scared of plane crashes than car crashes, why suburban middle-class guys with no enemies, think they need a loaded gun in the house, why people are more scared of their kids being snatched by child-molesters than of them being hit by a car or drowned in an unattended pool.

#33 ::: Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 09:41 AM:

#31: There's a quote somewhere about how this administration makes one feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist. (The author's probably now in Gitmo or something.)

#34 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 09:45 AM:

albatross #31

Dog bites man does make the news, or rather, Pit Bull Kills/Almost kills child/owner makes the news. Woman bites cat didn't make the news in the case of it that I saw (the cat decided it wanted some of a her steak, bit into the steak, and she bit the cat, startling it majorly...).

I wouldn't recognize quotes from Ayn Rand from first hand reading of her work, which I've never found readable.

As for "Republican conspiracies," try going to the Southen Baptist Convention's mission website, which organizes all sorts of campaigns promoting its views and values and objectives. It's long since gone, but the one that possibly appalled me the most was the sending of a mission to across the stree from one of the destroyed buildings of the World Trade Center--the website flat-out said that the funding profile of the mission was majority of funds for promoting conversion to Southern Baptism mission activities, that the food and clothing and shelter aid was the minority of the budget, and that the purpose of the mission was to convert non-Southern-Baptists to Southern Baptists, the offer of aid was a lure to bring people in, get them into the mission and present and in receptive moods for evangelizing activity.

Note that the corpus occupying the position of President of the United States of America meets with evangelizing clerics many times a year, and various agendas that he push have a high level of congruence with the rightwing evangelizing in-your-face branches of Christianity, and that his "faith=based" initiatives, abstinence-=promotion insanity (bet HE never practiced it...), etc., are basically partisan -religious- promotion--at taxpayer expense, and that the funded clerical organizations have a habit of being ones that discriminate in hiring against people not of their particular branches/sects of their particular religion...

#35 ::: hilzoy ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 10:17 AM:

I wrote about this shortly after the Washington Post (link), but before the press release you cite (which I wasn't aware of.) Since I try to check things out before I write on them, but don't have access to the actual case files or anything, I did look around, and found the judge's bio (linked in my post), other news stories about it, and (not linked in my post, for obvious reasons) the judge's divorce proceedings, which seemed to me to show some of the same tendencies towards the use of the law as a blunt instrument, only in a much less completely absurd way. (Meaning: he seemed to me to be a bully who used legal threats as weapons, but he wasn't asking for millions for a pair of pants.)


#36 ::: Matt ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 12:28 PM:

The lawsuit story was broken by Marc Fisher, a columnist in the Post's 'Metro' section. He has a blog 'Raw Fisher' on the Post website, and a weekly online Q&A session-- it's all legit and not driven by the wingnuts. Fisher himself is fairly liberal with the occasional idiosyncratic opinion. Not sinister.

It's too bad that the 'tort reform' crowd is grinding its axe here-- but, FWIW, from what I've heard there are real problems in the local 'courthouse' DC legal scene, and this is just an example of it.

#37 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 02:12 PM:

Any sightings of red-headed dwarfs?

#38 ::: Tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 02:44 PM:

IANAL. And IA also English, so I'm asking this in a spirit of ignorance of the American Way Of Life™. If you're saying that the story was made up by the 'tort reform' people, can't you check if there really is a Judge Pearson in wherever? Or are you suggesting that a 'real' judge put his career and reputation on the line to prove a point. Not saying that couldn't be the case, just asking. But if it is, the Red Bearded Vertically Challenged Persons can't be far away...

#39 ::: Bob W. ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 02:47 PM:

I have so far failed to find the article I read on this subject a couple of weeks ago, so I can't back up this one addition to the discussion:

Mr Pearson apparently attempted to escalate the action in which he has engaged to the status of a class action suit by soliciting his friends and neighbours to join with him in complaints about the cleaners. If memory serves, the judge who ruled on the motion threw it out as being obviously a malicious action taken in bad faith. I think that the basis for rejecting it was stated as being in part due to Mr Pearson's slowness in various respects.

If this isn't making into the current news stories then I'm much inclined to agree that they are written so that they distort the picture of the complaining party as a crackpot.

#40 ::: Bob W. ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 03:04 PM:

Ah, here we go: not the article I read originally, but close. Hypertext reference via a quotation of the relevant bit

A judge in the case has admonished Pearson about his take-no-prisoners tactics. When Pearson sought to broaden the case to try to prove violations of consumer protection laws on behalf of all District residents, D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz said that "the court has significant concerns that the plaintiff is acting in bad faith" because of "the breathtaking magnitude of the expansion he seeks."

Pearson has put the Chungs and their attorneys to work answering long lists of questions, such as this: "Please identify by name, full address and telephone number, all cleaners known to you on May 1, 2005 in the District of Columbia, the United States and the world that advertise 'SATISFACTION GUARANTEED.' "

In the world.

The answer: "None."

In a closet of a lawyer's office in downtown Washington, there is a pair of gray wool pants, waiting to be picked up by Roy Pearson.

"We believe the pants are his," Manning says. "The tag matches his receipt."

#41 ::: Bob W. ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 03:19 PM:

All of these details to the side, the fact that the ATRA press release emphasizes that this is "a typical ... exploitation of [of consumer protection] laws" but does not mention the rejection of the class action motion (i.e. doesn't mention that Pearson's actions are considered to be overreaching in any way by any judge) seems designed to pump up this suit as another example of why we so badly need tort reform.

ATRA also manages to rather neatly position their organization as palpably on the side of those injured by frivolous lawsuits ('we'd pay reasonable damages on behalf of the Chungs').

I think this instance of crackpottery is particularly useful to their cause because the watercooler summary of it will be something like, "This guy sued the cleaners for $65 million for losing a pair of pants -- and get this, the guy who sued is a judge! Now you see why businesses can't get fair treatment in lawsuits in this country!"

#42 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 04:22 PM:

mythago @ #26:

Sorry if my comments have been less than coherent as to what I'm getting at.

To cut short a much longer and less focused post... when a plaintiff can afford to sustain a big lawsuit and legal effort - for whatever reason, including deeper pockets - and a defendant can't, that allows real abuse of the legal system. These are well-known as SLAPP lawsuits in the context where the plaintiff in such a lawsuit is a corporation and the defendant is a private individual or non-profit doing something the corporation doesn't like, such as protesting their misdeeds.

Unfortunately while SLAPP suits are supposed to be illegal in some states, they're not in others and not on the U.S. federal level; and in many cases the plaintiff's lawyers can either go venue shopping for where to bring the lawsuit, or "color" the facts to keep the case from getting thrown out on SLAPP grounds and to keep costing the defendants money.

Moreover, that really only addresses one kind of abuse. Besides their well-known use to suppress public criticism of corporations, recently some spammers who have made a lot of money at it have started using this as a tactic to suppress and harass anti-spam operations and individual anti-spammers.

#43 ::: Patrick ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 05:08 PM:

Clifton wrote, "To cut short a much longer and less focused post... when a plaintiff can afford to sustain a big lawsuit and legal effort - for whatever reason, including deeper pockets - and a defendant can't, that allows real abuse of the legal system."

For the record, it works both ways. If the defendant can afford to sustain a big defense and legal effort, for whatever reasons, and the plaintiff cannot, the plaintiff is screwed. Usually you don't hear about those cases though, because the would-be plaintiff goes to a plaintiff's lawyer, asks about contingency fee litigation, is told that it would be economically infeasible to pursue the lawsuit, and to just go home.

#44 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: May 08, 2007, 09:23 PM:

Clifton, re SLAPP lawsuits, it's not as easy to forum-shop or "color the facts" as you suggest; and the solution is anti-SLAPP laws, not setting aside the civil justice system for the exclusive use of the rich.

"Deeper pockets" is one of those tort-reform buzzwords that suggests the rich are being unfairly picked on. (You'd almost think that's a theme of theirs.) What it really refers to is joint and several liability by tortfeasors.

#45 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 01:49 AM:

Patrick: Of course that's also true, and I don't dispute it.

mythago: I don't know how you got from what I wrote to what you wrote, namely: "setting aside the civil justice system for the exclusive use of the rich." If anything, it should be obvious I'm saying the reverse - the system vastly overprivileges the rich, whichever side of the suit they're on.

#46 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 02:38 AM:

Clifton @41,

I'd like to note a mirror-universe SLAPP lawsuit:

As you may remember, the Electronic Frontier Foundation- a member supported organization with about 30 people on staff*- sued AT&T for handing all their customer's phone records to the NSA. Subsequent suits against other telephone companies have been consolidated into the EFF's.

Verizon is now say that the EFF's lawsuit is a SLAPP, because handing anything or everything to the government is protected free speech.

* disclaimer: I know people there and love the work they do.

#47 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 08:49 AM:

Kathryn from Sunnyvale @ 45

That's one of the most contorted* legal theories I've ever heard. It's positively** Orwellian: "Secrecy is Discourse!"

* feeble pun intended.

** make that negatively

#48 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 09:17 AM:

I don't know how you got from what I wrote to what you wrote, namely: "setting aside the civil justice system for the exclusive use of the rich."

The 'solutions' proposed by the AFRA and ILR crowd are meant to do exactly that. They're especially meant to do so by taking away the ability to bring a lawsuit without being rich--i.e. by hiring a lawyer to work on a contingency-fee basis. That's how most of the consumer and personal-injury suits they whine about get brought.

#49 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 12:29 PM:


Recognizing problems != supporting the proposed solution of the tort reform folks.

#50 ::: Anono ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 10:48 PM:

The Washington Post wrote about this on April 25. The ATRA press release was 6 days later, on May 1. And you think this means that the press release was "either rushed out or already had prepared when the story broke"? Personally, I could write the ATRA press release in three days and not feel very "rushed" (assuming no more than 10 hours per day, approx. 1 hour per sentence).

#51 ::: Jim Satterfield ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 11:35 PM:

The scent of astroturf in Washington has been strong for years. In fact I think it's the first actual instance of viable Smell-o-Vision with those ads featuring Art Linkletter on behalf of the United Seniors Association.

#52 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2007, 11:56 PM:

viable Smell-o-Vision with those ads featuring Art Linkletter

I'm not sure I'd put 'viable', 'Smell-o-Vision', and 'Art Linkletter' in the same sentence. Unless you're discussing public relations zombies, of course.

#53 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2007, 12:08 AM:

Smell-o-vision? Why do I find myself thinking of a John Waters movie?

#54 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2007, 09:26 AM:

Anono #50 - In most organisations where I've worked, the delay in press releases has been in circulating them to everyone effected and getting them to agree. Usually this meant rewriting it four or five times, with several hours chasing down managers and directors between each iteration to get them to sign off. A week wasn't an unreasonable lead time for something not time dependent.

The people at ATRA might be more efficent, and just took their time. Or perhaps they don't sit around waiting for stories like this, and have 9 or 10 hours of work a day normally, with this in addition.

#55 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2007, 03:56 PM:

albatross, I'm sure that nobody here buys the goals of the "tort reform" crowd - but they have done a very good job of poisoning the well, and reasonable people sometimes think that 'they have a point' or 'well, X would work if it were a bit more limited than they suggest'.

#56 ::: Rev. Bob ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2007, 01:34 AM:

Why do we get clobbered by people who can sling slogans?

Every time a "tort reformer" slings his favorite snarl-phrase "trial lawyers" around, we need to come back with "Yeah, because we know corporate lawyers are ever so much more cuddly."

They say "trial lawyers", we say "corporate lawyers", we win. This isn't rocket science, people.

Let's master some damn tactics and not fight like a bunch of amateurs.

#57 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2007, 01:23 AM:

It occurs to me that the tort-reform astroturfing campaign might offer us a valuable insight into how to combat the RIAA/DCMA copyright revisionism. If highlighting ludicrously high payouts effectively undercuts public support, well, nothing strikes me as quite so ridiculous as suing 13 year olds for tens of thousands of dollars.

Now all we need is a couple of multi-millionare backers.

#58 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: May 14, 2007, 11:49 AM:

#57 Heresiarch:

ISTM that this is standard operating procedure for propoganda. Think of terms like "welfare queen," "isolationist," etc. Think of the way you can frame a whole debate by finding the right pictures and people--you want a Rosa Parks to get hauled off the bus for not sitting in the back, not some rough-looking black guy who's spewing obscenities. You want a scary-looking Willie Horton in the campaign ad, to drive home the message that Dukakis is letting scary guys like *this* our to do unspeakable things to you and yours.

I think one source of the huge rifts in opinion in the US is that these symbols/names/images just work differently on different people. Someone else hears Bush talk and sees him emote determination and reliability, and says "he's my kind of guy." I hear and see the same thing, and it doesn't do anything for me. I'm just not the target audience.

And sometimes, the same phrase or symbol becomes loaded with opposite meanings, which makes it almost impossible to even have a discussion about it. Alice sees the image of Jose, working construction in Maryland and missing El Salvador, and sees the melting pot, a striving immigrant, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Bob see the same image, and sees rising crime, bottom-tier workers like himself being pushed out of construction, and a massive invasion of people who don't look, sound, or act much like he does. It's the same guy, right? But Alice and Bob don't *see* the same guy, and they probably can't have a sensible conversation about him.

#59 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2007, 02:58 AM:

The lawyers representing themselves for free and incurring costs on others applies to a lot of patent trolls too.

#60 ::: Steven desJardins ::: (view all by) ::: June 08, 2007, 01:04 PM:

Another lawsuit story in the Washington Post:

An 80-year-old man was giving a talk at the Yale Club at New York, and there were no steps up to the platform with the lectern. He tried to climb up there anyway, fell, and hurt his leg. He's now suing for one million dollars.

The plaintiff's name? Robert Bork.

#61 ::: Amy Ayer ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2007, 01:50 PM:

The Pants Suit has been dismissed. CNN Online news reported:

A judge in the District of Columbia has dismissed a case against a dry cleaner who was sued for $54 million in damages over a pair of missing pants....[Judge] Bartnoff awarded court costs to the Chungs, who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on the case. They are attempting to have their attorney's fees paid by Pearson.

#62 ::: Tom Whitmore sees incompetent spam ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2010, 04:41 AM:

Hint: if you're advertising a website through comment spam, it helps to link to it.

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