Keep Your Pants On!! Here’s TortDeform’s Take on Judge v. Dry Cleaners:
Over the past few days we’ve read entertaining play-by-plays (see here , here, and here) of court antics in the drama-filled, utterly ridiculous trouser-trauma lawsuit between former administrative law judge, Roy Pearson, and the Chung family, owners of a D.C. dry cleaning business. The vast majority of folks who read about this case were astounded at this abuse of the legal system. Gross misconduct?! Allegations of Nazism?!?! $54 million?!?!?! Two words: Come. On. But beyond the exclamations this event evokes, what lessons does this case present for proponents of a civil justice agenda? Well, here are my humble two cents:
Lesson One: Sensationalism Sells (But careful—it can also undermine efforts to achieve social justice).
Extensive media coverage of this lawsuit requires that the reader maintain a critical eye. Obviously, a case like this is rare (hence, the concept of it being news), but tort “reformers” will try to use this case as an example of the norm, suggesting that this is what civil justice is about. The press, perhaps unwittingly, helps them do this by perpetuating an image that litigation-crazy people are everywhere. Like this quote from a Washington Post article:
"Soo and Jin Chung came to the United States from South Korea to pursue the American dream -- only to have it torn asunder by that other famous American institution, the frivolous lawsuit."
It is quite sad that tort “reformers” have manipulated some of the public into believing this. In fact, lawsuits in general are in decline, and frivolous ones are particularly scarce among lawsuits brought by private individuals. Department of Justice statistics show that the number of civil trials dropped by 47% and tort cases by 31% between 1992 and 2001. A Public Citizen study showed that corporations are four times more likely to sue, and 69 percent more likely to be sanctioned for frivolousness than individuals--evidence that, if anything, we need to watch big business a little more closely. But if we were to rely on media adaptations rather than this data, we would be led to believe that our courts are filled with frivolous, fashion-frenzied litigants out to make a quick buck (or million bucks).
Lesson Two: Stay On Track--Civil Justice is Not About Pants
Tort "reformers" will attempt to use this case to strengthen theirs, but that is only the oldest trick in their book. Using one isolated example to wildly distort the problem gets us off track in terms of what civil justice is about. The civil justice community is equally appalled by this lawsuit; the difference is that we know that knee-jerk reactions to scrap the whole system because of one troubled, vindictive individual would be a grave mistake. Why toss out both baby and bathwater? We should enforce the consequences that are already built into the system. This is why the American Association for Justice (formerly ATLA) called for an investigation into Pearson’s professional ethics when he filed this lawsuit.
Tort “reformers” claim that this lawsuit is symptomatic of a system that is too open and accessible, and therefore demonstrates a need to further restrict access to the courts. This basically translates into an argument for compromising the American public’s right to protection under the law. Despite one crazy lawsuit we know that access to the court system is a very good thing.
The civil justice system provides an added check against corporate misconduct as well as a remedy to those affected by it. Instead of limiting people's right to use this forum, we should protect it. Indeed, there is mounting evidence of the need for increasing access to the courts through establishment of a civil-law version of the criminal right to counsel--called a Civil- Gideon right--in cases involving important basic human needs. Take this for example:
"While the nationwide Legal Services Corporation-funded system for providing legal services assists as many as 1 million poor people with critical lgal problems each year... the legal aid programs within that system have to turn away another million people who come to their offices. Millions more are discouraged and don't bother seeking legal aid because they know help is not available." See the Article
But a pants-suit is not about basic human needs (sorry for stating the obvious), and suing for $54 million is just obscene. This is not what civil justice is about at all. We shouldn't let the media, or any one else attempt to suggest otherwise.