Judge Rules in Favor of Dry Cleaners in $54 Million Pants Lawsuit

Dry cleaners will not have to pay anything to their disgruntled customer.


June 25, 2007 — -- A Washington, D.C., dry cleaning store that was sued for $54 million over an allegedly missing pair of pants will not have to pay anything to its disgruntled customer, a judge ruled Monday.

Instead, Roy Pearson, who sued over the missing trousers, may have to pay the store owners' legal fees.

Washington Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff said Pearson had not proven that the Custom Cleaners dry cleaning shop had actually lost his prized pants.

She also said that Pearson's theory that the owners owed him $54 million because they lost his pants despite a sign that ensures "Satisfaction Guaranteed" had no support in the law.

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

The case gained national attention after the lawsuit was filed. Pearson, an administrative law judge, drew fire not only from an outraged public, but from trial lawyers and tort reform advocates across the country. The response to a story written about the case on ABCNEWS.com was so overwhelmingly in favor of the defendants that a defense fund for the dry cleaners was set up to accept online donations.

Defending themselves against the suit -- for two years running -- were Korean immigrants Jin and Soo Chung and their son, who own Custom Cleaners and two other dry cleaning stores in the Fort Lincoln section of Washington. The Chungs said they spent thousands of dollars in legal fees.

The judge ruled Pearson must pay the defendants' court costs, which amount to about $1,000. Bartnoff said she would consider at a later date whether to make Pearson also pay the Chungs' attorneys fees, which make up the larger portion of their legal fees.

"Judge Bartnoff has chosen common sense and reasonableness over irrationality and unbridled venom," Christopher Manning, the Chungs' attorney, said in a statement. "Simply put, Judge Bartnoff got it right."

An Emotional Trial

The trial proved nearly as dramatic -- and unusual -- as the plaintiff's claims. On the witness stand, Pearson broke down in tears and had to take a break from his testimony because he became too emotional while questioning himself about his experience with the missing trousers.

In his opening statement, Pearson came out swinging, telling the court, "Never before in recorded history have a group of defendants engaged in such misleading and unfair business practices."

Repeatedly referring to himself as "we," Pearson sought to present himself as the leader of a class of tens of thousands, if not a half million people, consisting of local residents he believes are at risk of falling for such insidious business practices as posting "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service" signs. Pearson said at one point in court filings that he planned to call 63 witnesses.

"Mr. Pearson, you are not 'we.' You are an 'I,'" Bartnoff told him.

As Pearson explained the details of the missing pants, he struggled to get through his hour and a half of testimony, most of which concerned his credentials and his background.

He became visibly emotional when he reached the point in the story in which he recounted a confrontation with Soo Chung from the dry cleaning store.

"These are not my pants," he testified, and said he told her, "I have in my adult life, with one exception, never worn pants with cuffs."

Pearson testified that Chung insisted, saying, "These are your pants."

Pearson then rushed from the courtroom, overcome with emotion.

From $10 to $67 Million for Pants

The bad blood between the customer and store dates back to 2002, when another pair of pants was allegedly lost by the dry cleaners.

The Chungs gave Pearson a $150 check for a new pair of pants, and Pearson was banned from the store, defense attorney Manning claimed in court.

Manning said Pearson pleaded with the Chungs to let him back into the store because he didn't have a car, he said, and they were the only dry cleaners in the neighborhood.

Three years later, Pearson said he returned to Custom Cleaners and, like some real-life "Groundhog Day" nightmare, another pair of trousers went missing.

It was May 2005 and Pearson was about to begin his new job as an administrative judge. He said in court filings he wanted to wear a nice outfit to his first day of work. He tried on five Hickey Freeman suits from his closet, but found them all to be "too tight," according to the Washington Post, which first reported the story.

Pearson said he brought one pair of pants in for alterations and they went missing -- gray trousers with what Pearson described in court papers as blue and red stripes on them. The dry cleaning bill was $10.50.

First, Pearson demanded $1,150 for a new suit. Lawyers were hired, legal wrangling ensued and eventually the Chungs offered Pearson $3,000 in compensation. Then they offered him $4,600.

Finally, they offered $12,000 for the missing gray trousers with the red and blue stripes.

Pearson refused every offer. With neither satisfaction nor his prized gray pants, Pearson upped the ante considerably.

He went to the law books. Citing the District of Columbia's consumer protection laws, he claimed he was entitled to $1,500 per violation -- each day that the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service" signs were up in the store. It had been more than 1,200 days.

And he multiplied each violation by three because he sued Jin and Soo Chung and their son. With another $1 million for emotional damages and more for legal fees, that brought Pearson to $67 million, though he later amended his filings to ask for only $54 million.

An 'Outrageous' Claim

Even fellow trial lawyers were offended by the size of the civil lawsuit.

"It's outrageous and it's shameful," Bill Schulz, spokesman for the American Association for Justice, the largest trial lawyer group in the nation, told ABC News. The AAJ filed a complaint about Pearson recently with the District of Columbia bar association.

Schulz said the case is an embarrassing anomaly that "should not be used as an indictment against the civil justice system in this country because, it works quite well, thank you, for people -- ordinary people -- who are seeking real justice for real cases of negligence and wrongdoing."

"It's laughable," said Philip K. Howard, founder of the nonpartisan law policy coalition Common Good. "It's like a parody of the American system of justice."

Lawsuit Is 'Not Humorous'

Ironically, less than a week after Pearson dropped off the missing trousers in 2005, Soo Chung said she found them. She tried to return them to Pearson but he said they were the wrong pants.

The Chungs said they are certain they have located the missing trousers.

Before the end of the trial, the Chungs told ABC News that they have spent thousands of dollars defending themselves against Pearson's lawsuit.

"It's not humorous, not funny and nobody would have thought that something like this would have happened," Soo Chung told ABC News through an interpreter. Her husband agreed.

"It's affecting us first of all financially, because of all the lawyers' fees," Jin Chung said. "For two years, we've been paying lawyer fees. And we've gotten bad credit as well, and secondly, it's been difficult mentally and physically because of the level of stress."

Soo Chung later broke down in tears.

"I would have never thought it would have dragged on this long," she said. "I don't want to live here anymore. It's been so difficult. I just want to go home, go back to Korea."

"I've been in the dry cleaning business for 14 years, but this has never ever happened before. If anything happened to our customers' clothing, we would always compensate them accordingly and fairly," Jin Chung said through a translator.

The ABC News Law & Justice Unit has calculated that for the original $67 million Pearson sought, he could buy 84,115 new pairs of pants at the $800 value he placed on the missing trousers in court documents. If you stacked those pants up, they would be taller than eight Mount Everests. If you laid them side by side, they would stretch for 48 miles.