June 13, 2007

If they lose your pants, sue

The language and law desk at Language Log Plaza is pleased to report that you can now sue a dry cleaner who loses your pants. A Washington DC administrative law judge was incensed when a local dry cleaning establishment owned by Korean Americans returned his suit jacket minus his pants. The Washington Post says it all here, or most of it at least. The connection of this startling news with language is a bit iffy, but there are at least three words of linguistic interest here: satisfied, willful, and we.

The plaintiff claims that a sign in the shop's window says, Satisfaction Guaranteed. He  wasn't satisfied and said he had no choice but to take on "the awesome responsibility" of suing on behalf of the residents of the city. He brought in witnesses who had similar experiences with the cleaners but, to his dismay, they all testified that they'd be satisfied if they were compensated for the value of their lost or damaged garments and if their bill was voided. So their view of satisfaction wasn't quite what the plaintiff had in mind. He's suing for 65 million dollars, a very different definition of what it means to be satisfied.

The plaintiff also charged the cleaners with "willful and malicious conduct." It's not always clear what the Courts mean by willful. Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (Oxford U Press 1995) says that time and again willful means

"only intentionally or purposely as distinguished from accidentally or negligently and does not require any actual impropriety; while on the other hand it has been stated with equal repetition and insistence that the requirement added by such a word is not satisfied unless there is a bad purpose or evil intent." (936)

Was this drycleaner out to get the plaintiff? Or was losing his pants an mere accident or the result of negligence?  Will the Courts ever decide on what is meant by willful? Stay tuned.

The Post article also reports that the judge in this case rebuked the plaintiff for referring to himself as "we" during his presentation (he represented himself), saying: "Mr. Pearson, you are not a 'we.' You are an 'I'" Judge Judith Bartnoff probably thought the plaintiff was using the "royal we." She could have been correct in this, but in an admittedly feeble effort to see this from the plaintiff's perspective, I suppose he could have been using the stylistic mannerism of the "editorial we," which implies a collective rather than individual view for, after all, he took on himself the awesome responsibility of representing half a million DC residents. Naah. It was probably the "royal we."

Posted by Roger Shuy at June 13, 2007 01:20 PM