A judge ruled Monday in favor of a South Korean dry cleaner who was sued for $54 million over a missing pair of pants in a case that garnered international attention and renewed calls for litigation reform.
The owners of Custom Cleaners did not violate the city's consumer protection act by failing to live up to Roy L. Pearson's expectations of the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign that was once placed in the store window, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff ruled.
Bartnoff ordered Pearson to pay the court costs of defendants Soo Chung, Jin Nam Chung and Ki Y. Chung. Those costs came to just over $1,000, according to the Chungs' attorney. A motion to recover the tens of thousands of dollars they spent in attorney fees will be considered later.
Pearson, an administrative law judge, originally sought $67 million from the Chungs after he claimed they lost a pair of trousers from a blue and maroon suit, then later tried to return a pair of charcoal gray pants that he said were not his. He arrived at the amount by adding up years of law violations and almost $2 million in common law claims for fraud.
Pearson later dropped demands for damages related to the pants and focused his claims on signs in the shop, which have since been removed.
The two-day trial earlier this month drew a standing-room-only crowd, including many Korean and international media outlets covering the story.
In issuing her ruling Monday, the judge wrote that Pearson failed to prove that the pants the dry cleaner tried to return were not the pants he brought in for alterations.
"A reasonable consumer would not interpret 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' to mean that a merchant is required to satisfy a customer's unreasonable demands or to accede to demands that the merchant has reasonable grounds to dispute," the judge wrote.
Chris Manning, the Chungs' attorney, praised the ruling.
"Judge Bartnoff has spoken loudly in suggesting that, while consumers should be protected, abusive lawsuits like this will not be tolerated," Manning said in a statement. "Judge Bartnoff has chosen commonsense and reasonableness over irrationality and unbridled venom."
The Chungs have said the trial exacted an enormous financial and emotional toll on them and exposed them to widespread ridicule.
Pearson did not immediately respond to a call and an e-mail seeking comment. Manning said he expected Pearson to appeal.
During the trial, Pearson testified that he wanted only $2 million in damages for himself — for his mental anguish and inconvenience — plus $500,000 in attorney's fees for representing himself. Any additional money that the judge might award would go into a fund "to educate people of their rights under the consumer protection act," he said.
The case garnered international attention and renewed calls for litigation reform.
"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."