I was once sued in state court by a disgruntled reader who accused me of calling him a "crackpot." Fortunately, the suit went nowhere; the plaintiff's nutty, hand-scrawled complaint was apparently all the court needed to dismiss the case. That and the fact that even in Massachusetts, you're allowed to use the word "crackpot" when being harangued by one on the telephone.
But what if the plaintiff in my case hadn't been so plainly bonkers? What if he had been a lawyer, or even a judge someone who knew his way around a lawsuit? What if he had been another Roy L. Pearson Jr.?
As everyone this side of Mazar-e-Sharif must know by now, Pearson is the administrative law judge in Washington, D.C., who in 2005 sued his dry cleaners for $65 million over a missing pair of pants. He later reduced his claim to $54 million, and the case was tried in D.C. Superior Court last week.
Pearson, representing himself before Judge Judith Bartnoff, declared grandiosely that "never before in recorded history have a group of defendants engaged in such misleading and unfair business practices. You will search the DC archives in vain for a case of more egregious or willful conduct." Bartnoff let him go on in this vein, the Washington Post reported, and he argued his case "for hour upon hour," though he wasn't permitted to call all 63 of the witnesses he had hoped to put on the stand. Nor did Bartnoff allow him to rehash the saga of his 2004 divorce, which he insists the Virginia courts mishandled.
On the other hand, Pearson did testify that he has between 40 and 60 pairs of pants hanging in his closet, none of which, he was at pains to point out, has cuffs. At one point he broke down in tears and had to ask for a recess. That emotional upwelling occurred as he was recounting the moment when the dry cleaner handed him what he says were the wrong trousers. (They were cuffed).
The whole thing sounds like a Sacha Baron Cohen sendup, and it has certainly drawn plenty of amused media attention. (New York Times headline: "Judge Tries Suing Pants Off Dry Cleaners.")
But Pearson's ludicrous lawsuit, and the legal system's willingness to indulge it, is no joke to Jin and Soo Chung, the owners of Custom Dry Cleaning. The legal bills they have incurred in fighting this lawsuit have wiped out their family's savings. Three times they have offered Pearson a settlement, most recently for $12,000. Three times Pearson has refused.
"How does such a case get to trial?" Post columnist Marc Fisher asked the other day. "How does one man get to make a laughingstock of the system?" His sad answer: Pearson's legal terrorism "is only an exaggerated version of what goes on in virtually every institution of American life, where humane and reasonable behavior is quashed by reminders that someone could conceivably be sued."
Who can doubt it? The population of lawyers in America has soared in recent decades, and with their increase has come an explosion in the lawyer's stock in trade: regulation, disputation, and litigation. In 1978, noting that the number of US lawyers had increased to 462,000, Time magazine rued the way laws and lawsuits were taking over American life, making it ever more difficult for people of goodwill to rely on custom and common sense in settling differences. It quoted then-Chief Justice Warren Burger: "We may well be on our way to a society overrun by hordes of lawyers, hungry as locusts, and brigades of judges in numbers never before contemplated."
If that was true then, how much more so today, when the "hordes of lawyers" (including non-practicing ones like me) have swollen to nearly 1 million? A century ago, there was 1 lawyer for every 714 Americans. Today the ratio is 1 to 288.
Of course lawsuits have a vital role to play in our legal system. If there were no way to hold people liable for reckless or malicious behavior, it would be difficult to keep such behavior in check. "But the converse is also true," as Philip K. Howard, author of *The Death of Common Sense* and chairman of Common Good, testified at a congressional hearing in 2004. "Allow lawsuits against reasonable behavior, and pretty soon people no longer feel free to act reasonably. And that's what's happening in America today."
Pearson's pants case is only the most egregious example of the I'll-see-you-in-court mindset that has battered the medical profession, turned divorce proceedings into ferocious battles, and stripped playgrounds of seesaws and jungle gyms. ABC News recently rounded up reports of some others: The woman who sued an outdoor mall after being "attacked" by a squirrel, on the grounds that the mall "failed to warn" her in advance. The photographer who fell off a garbage truck he had climbed on top of to take some pictures, then sued the waste-management company for $50 million because he "never thought in a million years the truck would move." The drug-abusing patient who sued a hospital for "allowing" a visitor to sneak illegal drugs into the hospital for her. The plaintiff who demanded $832 million from superstar athlete Michael Jordan and Nike co-founder Phil Knight because he found it "distressing" to look like Jordan and be confused with him.
Lawsuits cost Americans hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Legal fear the fear of being sued, and the lengths to which US businesses, institutions, and municipalities go to avoid legal risk makes life more expensive, more frustrating, and less free for all of us. "I think we may class the lawyer in the natural history of monsters," John Keats wrote. But that was in 1819. Imagine what he would have said if he had met Roy Pearson.