Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
Now perhaps the silly interviews and faux outrage will end. No, despite the hysteria attendant to such schemes, the absurd litigant (He Who Shall Not Be Named for purposes of this blog entry) who brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against a dry cleaner over a pair of pants did not succeedwith his efforts. In fact, he has been punished for them—he'll have to pay the defendant their court costs and perhaps their attorneys' fees as well. Our nation's justice system is still safe, at least for another day; the inmates are not yet running the asylum.
Let's give credit first to the presiding judge in the case, D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff. She played the whole case with a straight face—Abbott to the plaintiff's Costello-- and even was able and willing to churn out a 23-page ruling that almost certainly will be upheld on appeal. That is, if the silly, stubborn plaintiff decides that he still has the money and stomach to continue to pretend he is a one-man private attorney general bent on ridding the world of imperfect dry cleaners.
If Judge Bartnoff had played it the other way—if she had given voice to what she and hundreds of millions of Americans felt about the lawsuit—she would have stooped to the level of this litigation and in the process would have opened herself up to charges that she was somehow prejudiced and biased against the plaintiff. A silly concern? Sure. But no more or less silly than the lawsuit which generated this trial.
By pretending this was a serious lawsuit brought by a serious litigant involving close questions of law and fact, Judge Bartnoff did as much as she could to neutralize this plaintiff. A wise choice given what we know about this fellow and his apparent penchant for turning lemonade into lemons. Perhaps the undue respect that the judge showed to the plaintiff, alone, is enough to convince him that it's time to stop fighting this fight; and of course if that fails perhaps the hit to his wallet will do the trick.
I hope the dry cleaners win their upcoming fight to have the plaintiff pay their attorneys' fees as well. Such damage awards are designed for precisely this sort of case, when one side replaces reason and logic with what he or she inevitably calls "the principle of the thing." The first lawyer who took me under his wing told me on my first day of practice: any time a client wants to continue litigation based on "principle" you know you have a bad client and a weak case. Indeed.