US judge rejects 54-million-dollar lawsuit over missing pants

No pair of pants is worth $54 million (euro40 million). A judge rejected a lawsuit that sought that amount by taking a South Korean dry cleaner's promise of "Satisfaction Guaranteed" to its most legalistic extreme.

Roy L. Pearson became a worldwide symbol of legal abuse by seeking jackpot justice from a simple complaint - that a neighborhood dry cleaners lost the pants from a suit and tried to give him a pair that were not his.

His claim, reduced from $67 million (euro49.77 million), was based on a strict interpretation of the city's consumer protection law - which imposes fines of $1,500 (euro1,114) per violation - as well as damages for inconvenience, mental anguish and attorney's fees for representing himself.

A judge on Monday decided that Pearson was not entitled to a penny, and in fact owes the Chung family, owners of Custom Cleaners in northeast Washington, about $1,000 (euro743) in clerical court costs.

The lawsuit filed by Pearson, an administrative law judge, has been mocked worldwide as a frivolous and outrageous legal action, and cost the Chungs two years of litigation, sleepless nights, financial and emotional stress.

"This case was giving American justice a black eye around the world, and it was all the more upsetting because it was a judge and lawyer who was bringing the suit," said Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor.

Rothstein said Monday's ruling "restores one's confidence in the legal system."

Calls have come from around the world for Pearson to lose his position on the bench and be disbarred. The city's chief administrative law judge is still considering Pearson's 10-year reappointment.

The Korean family knows what they will do if Pearson shows up at their door with his laundry again.

"If he wants to continue using our services, then, yes, he is welcome," co-owner Soo Chung said at a news conference Monday to a mob of reporters from at least nine different countries.

"We don't dislike Pearson as a person, we dislike his actions toward us," she said.

Pearson, who came to court during the two-day trial earlier this month carrying the jacket he said went with the missing pants, did not respond to a call and an e-mail seeking comment.

Pearson originally sought $67 million (Ђ49.77 million) from the Chungs. He claimed they lost a pair of trousers from a blue and burgundy suit two years ago, then tried to give him a pair of charcoal gray pants that he said were not his.

Pearson - dubbed "Fancy Pants" and "Pantsless Pearson" by the online world - arrived at the amount by adding up years of alleged consumer protection law violations and almost $2 million (euro1.49 million) in common law fraud claims. He later dropped demandsfordamages related to the pants and focused his claims on signs in the shop, including "Satisfaction Guaranteed," which have since been removed.

It was not the first time he had troubles with the Chungs.

In 2002, Pearson claimed that the family lost a pair of his pants, and they paid him $150 (euro111) without asking for a receipt but asked him not to return to their store. He appealed to them in a letter detailing the hardships he would endure if he couldn't use the cleaners in his neighborhood, and everyone made nice.

"He wasn't the nicest customer, he had a lot of complaints. Whenever he came in as a customer, we were always nervous," Soo Chung said.

Three years later, just after Pearson went through financial troubles related to a bitter divorce and unemployment, he got a job as a judge and brought in several suits for alteration. He claimed one pair of pants was missing, and that because he did not receive whatever he wanted in response, the Chungs were engaging in "unfair business practices" with the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign.

Even after all the trouble and ridicule, the Buddhist family wishes no ill upon their nemesis. "For the past two years we've disliked him, especially because it was a nightmare," Soo Chung said.

But one night, her mother-in-law called from South Korea with the guidance of a proverb: "Don't let hate feed hate."

"I decided to listen to my mother-in-law," Soo Chung told The Associated Press. "We respect Mr. Pearson."

The amount Pearson asked for would have bought him nearly 50,000 brand new $1,100 (euro817) suits - what he claimed the old one cost. That would be a new suit every day for the next 134 years.

But District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff ruled that the Chungs did not violate the consumer protection law by failing to live up to Pearson's expectations of the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign once displayed in the store.

"A reasonable consumer would not interpret 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' to mean that a merchant is required to satisfy a customer's unreasonable demands," the judge wrote.

Bartnoff wrote that Pearson also failed to prove that the pants the dry cleaner tried to return were not the pants he took in.

Pearson eventually could be ordered to pay the Chungs tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs they incurred beyond the clerical fees. Chris Manning, the family's attorney, said a defense fund Web site for the Chungs has collected about $35,000 (euro26,001) - only a fraction of about $100,000 (euro74,289) in estimated defense costs.

The United States Chamber of Commerce and the American Tort Reform Association are also holding a fundraiser for the Chungs on July 24.