Reporter's Notebook: The Case of the $54 Million Pants

The case of the $54 million pants suit began Tuesday as standing room only in the circus that was Judge Judith Bartnoff’s courtroom 415 at D.C. Superior Court — a room filled mostly with media and Korean supporters of defendants Jin and Soo Chung and their son, Ki.

The plaintiff, Judge Roy Pearson dropped his original claim of $67 million because he chose to withdraw the claim of the actual loss of the pants, which were eventually found in the Chung's dry cleaning store, and focus on what he says are fraudulent signs in the store that read "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service."

The first 45 minutes of the trial were strangely devoted to Judge Bartnoff seeking clarification of Judge Pearson’s withdrawal of the lost pants claims and determining what exactly the case was really about — the false advertising citied under D.C.’s Consumer Protection Act.

Once that ended and opening statements began, defense attorney Chris Manning said this was "a simple case about people."

Manning suggested that because of Pearson’s unpleasant divorce in 2003, his financial hardships and his attempt to seek revenge on the Chungs for losing his pants, this case had become a "perfect legal storm."

Manning summed up the opening statement with this quote: "This is a terrible example of American litigiousness." Manning also noted that this case comes down now to what a "reasonable person" would interpret "satisfaction guaranteed" to mean.

Pearson, who represented himself, proceeded to call some eight witnesses that included his 38-year-old son and some members of the community who had had bad experiences with Custom Dry Cleaners, including an 89-year-old woman in a wheelchair who drifted at times into her service in the Kennedy-Johnson administration.

This witness, Dr. Grace Hewell, was certainly entertaining when she noted that she was "chased" out of the store by Mr. Chung, which she then slid into comparing to "surviving the Nazis" while she was stationed in Germany in World War II.

It’s worth noting, though, that in the cross-examination of most of the witnesses, they were willing to admit that they "would have been satisfied" if they had gotten simple compensation from the Chungs for the loss or ruined pieces of clothing.

Pearson also called his salesman at Nordstrom’s to testify about the value of his Hickey Freeman suits as well as a member of his own Office of Administrative Hearings, who testified that Pearson "had no social life" and worked on his case on the weekends rather than going camping in West Virginia with the witness.

When Pearson testified as himself — a narrative that lasted for more than an hour — he broke down and cried and asked for a recess. The breakdown occurred right after he described being told that the Chungs "did not have his pants" that he so desperately needed to start his new job as a judge in 2005.

After his long-winded testimony, Pearson attempted to admit evidence — much of which was not permitted. This exercise took another hour.

The trial ended without a cross-examination of Pearson by Manning. That activity opens Wednesday's session and will be followed by the defense's calling of witnesses.

This reporter's sense is that Judge Bartnoff is becoming increasingly impatient with Pearson’s lack of evidence and illegitimate claims to personal injury. Not many in the audience appeared to have much sympathy for Pearson's teary-eyed moment.

After the trial ended, I rode the elevator down with the Chungs and I asked Mr. Chung how he was doing. He told me quietly, "I’m doing fine." Manning said they were "confident" that after the second day of testimony, the Chungs will prevail.

My attempt to speak with Judge Pearson, cameras in tow and me in my floral Lily Pulitzer pants, was greeted with a simple statement: "You’re being rude!"

As I wrapped up the day's events on air with The Big Story's John Gibson, a freak thunderstorm befell the city, and I noted the thunder, rain and lighting by saying, "I don’t know, John, but judging from the act of God in the background, perhaps even He is upset with this frivolous lawsuit."

Some other color to note — a man in a seersucker suit from the American Tort Reform Association handed out green buttons with a picture of pants on them that read: "$65 Million Pantsuit Perverts D.C.’s Consumer Protection Law."

The case starts up again Wednesday morning and I’ll be there to find out what the defense has to say.