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Latest wrinkle in fight against lawsuit abuse


Perhaps the Age of Miracles is indeed upon us. Or, given the particulars of the tale that follows, perhaps at least the Age of Common Sense hasn't totally passed into the history books.

For this tale, at least in the beginning, defies common sense, even common sense as contorted by legal analysis. It almost begins like a joke--a District of Columbia administrative law judge walks into a dry cleaner, bearing suits of the cloth kind. Somewhere along the way, a pair of pants strayed, and the judge asked the dry cleaners to pay him the full cost of the suit. The wayward pants reappeared, and the dry cleaner refused to pay for the cost of a new cloth suit.

The judge filed a suit of the legal variety. By the time the matter began drawing the attention of the Washington news media, roughly two years after the pants first went missing, the amount sought by the judge had grown to $65 million.

That's right--$65 million over a pair of pants that once were lost but now have been found, and have been found for quite some time. In fact, the pants have resided in the dry cleaner's defense attorney's office for better than a year.

The $65 million arises largely from the judge's interpretation of a D.C. consumer protection law that allows violators to be fined up to $1,500 a day for each violation. The judge calculated that 12 violations of D.C. law occurred each day for 1,200 days, with each violation multiplied by three for the three members of the Chung family who operated the dry cleaning establishment. The judge also sought to be reimbursed for the cost of renting a car to take his dry cleaning business elsewhere.

No doubt the Chungs, who made several settlement offers, would be very happy to see the judge descend upon one of their competitors, although not at the price sought.

Be that as it may, the matter is slated to go to trial later this month. As might be expected, tort reform advocates, notably the American Tort Reform Assn., have seized upon this incident as a prime example of lawsuit abuse and have offered to buy the judge a new pair of pants.

But what might not have been expected is that the American Assn. for Justice, formerly known as the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, also weighed in. Admittedly it did so after being chided a bit by ATRA and others. Still, the fact remains that AAJ not only condemned the judge's suit, but offered to help the Chungs defend themselves.

In fact, in addition to calling for disciplinary action against the judge, the AAJ set up a defense fund for the Chungs, a fund to which both AAJ Chief Executive Officer Jon Haber and President Lewis Eidson contributed. In a letter to the AAJ membership, Mr. Eidson called the suit "not only ridiculous, it is offensive to our values."

But Mr. Eidson added that he believes "the news media is sensationalizing this case beyond reasonable bounds. This case is clearly atypical and we cannot allow those who oppose us on fundamental issues of access to the civil justice system to turn this case into an indictment of that system."

I think that's overstating the case a bit, but that's what can make a good trial lawyer a great one.

In the meantime, there's something satisfying about seeing both sides in the never- ending tort reform debate agreeing that there's something very wrong about a judge trying to sue the shirt off the back of a dry cleaner over a pair of pants that were missing only temporarily.