In Jewish ritual, a special blessing is recited by a person who was in mortal danger and survived. The text thanks God for bestowing an act of grace upon one who apparently deserved to die. The old joke tells of a fellow approaching the rabbi asking to utter the benediction. His pants, he says, were on the clothesline outside his third-storey apartment and a brisk wind blew them down into the street. “But how were you in danger?” asks the Rabbi.
“Can you imagine what would have happened to me if I was wearing them at the time?”
One very creepy citizen in our nation’s capital has revived this ludicrous logic and in the process has contorted and distorted the tort to the point of extortion. The dry cleaner mislaid his pants on a day where he had to put in an important public appearance and he is treating the matter as if his body went into the shredder along with the trousers. He is suing all three owners of the concern (a three-piece suit?) for a total of sixty-seven million dollars. In pain and suffering terms, that is the equivalent of four dismemberments, three cancers and a mangled facelift that leaves a man looking like Buddy Hackett.
The objects of this suit are completely at a loss. They are a family of Korean immigrants – husband, wife and son — who, to quote their lawyer, “came for the American Dream and instead walked into this nightmare.” Their tactical error in marketing was including these fateful words in their store window: SATISFACTION GUARANTEED. Some codicil to a clause to a sub-chapter to an amendment to an addendum to an afterthought to a municipal law in Washington D.C. sets the threshold of such a guarantee at $1500 per day. Satisfaction being a subjective concept, and the satisfaction of petty sadistic harassing abusers being impossible, the invoice for these trousers expands by the day.
Where is sanity? Why has no judge put his foot down and summarily dismissed this monstrosity of an action — which has been dragging on for a couple of years? The answer would seem to lie in the fact that the complainant, Roy Pearson, is himself a judge. His colleagues seem stymied in their effort to get him to stop himself and too pusillanimous to stop him on their own. And so a family of simple launderers are terrorized, day in and day out for years, by a member of the judicial class they should be looking to for judiciousness and balanced temperament.
The litigation system plays an important role in society. It enables the little guy to get a hearing, putting the resources of the state at the disposal of the individual citizen. The government provides a judge, a man or woman of significant legal training and experience, with certain powers of intercession to correct injustices. In many cases, a penurious litigant can find a lawyer willing to perform extensive work without a retainer fee: he gets paid only if he wins, what is known as a contingency fee. This outlet for civil grievance functions as a mostly beneficial equalizer.
In fact I once represented myself and won by writing a nice motion from the heart, not in legalese. When a lawyer friend congratulated me, I replied: “It’s not my pro se, it’s my prose.”
Yet here and there a knowledgeable miscreant can game the process. He can file motions and countermotions, suits and countersuits, until he has counterbalanced the balancing role of the civil court. Often this is a person with deep pockets or with radical politics who has painted a mental bull’s-eye on the back of some person or organization and makes shooting at it his vocation.
But to see a judge behaving in this manner is profoundly distressing. Yes, we have all gotten crazed a time or two and decided to overdo things a little “to teach ‘em a lesson”. Fine, but in this case we passed that stage about 66.99 million dollars ago. What we have here is vindictiveness blossoming into antagonism blooming into arbitrariness developing into bellicosity metastasizing into cantankerousness. All the human failsafes have been bypassed: the head that says this is getting dumb, the heart that says this is getting mean, the soul that says this is getting vicious.
There is a movement afoot among consumer and legal groups to get Pearson disbarred; this might be overdone. It is enough to block his reappointment to the judgeship. One thing is for sure, if he gets his pants back they won’t fit anymore: he has grown much too big for his britches.