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Jewish World Review June 28, 1999 /14 Tamuz 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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A $581 million jackpot in the courthouse casino --
WHEN THE NUMBER at hand is $581 million, you'd think any sensible person would be able to take a firm position.

Yet it's precisely because of the $581 million that no position, in this case, seems right -- and that every position seems wrong.

In Alabama recently, a lawsuit about a back-yard satellite dish went before a jury.

Actually, it was two satellite dishes. One belonged to a woman named Barbara Carlisle; the other belonged to her parents, George and Velma Merriweather.

They had bought their satellite dishes because they wanted to pick up a lot of TV channels. They bought the dishes from a company called Gulf Coast Electronics; they arranged credit financing through Whirlpool Financial National Bank.

Each satellite dish cost $1,100. Later, Barbara Carlisle and Mr. and Mrs. Merriweather found out that they could have bought similar satellite dishes elsewhere for several hundred dollars. Also, they felt they had been given a bad deal on the credit terms.

So they sued. Reportedly, Whirlpool Financial offered to make up the disputed amount of money, but Carlisle and Mr. and Mrs. Merriweather sued anyway.

They won. Because they had been overcharged for the two satellite dishes for which they had paid $1,100, a jury in Hale County, Ala., decided to make things right for them.

The jury awarded them $581 million.

Now . . . I'm not sure if it cost the United States $581 million to launch the first American satellite into space.

The jury, it was reported, felt that the bank (which has since been sold) systematically and deliberately cheated unsophisticated people who wanted to buy satellite dishes on credit. Whether or not that is true, the jury, or so it was thought, was sending a signal to big business: If you cheat people who don't know any better, you will be punished for it.

The sending-a-signal-to-big-business theory of jury verdicts is a tricky thing; appeals courts don't much like it. Alabama has a particularly weird reputation -- it was in Alabama that a doctor who was upset that his new BMW had been repainted, and that no one had told him before he bought it, was awarded $4 million by a jury.

That jury decision was eventually thrown out on appeal, and the three winners of the $581 million satellite-dish jury award would be foolish to assume that their prize will stand. The jury system is supposed to be sacrosanct in the U.S. -- but it would be interesting to hear what the best appeals court judges, behind closed doors, have to say about juries that do things like this.

But before you call the jury crazy, keep in mind that there really is a case to be made that big corporations sometimes act responsibly only after they are shown that they're going to have to pay until it hurts if they act otherwise. That doesn't make the jury in the satellite dish case right -- but it also doesn't make Whirlpool Financial, if it really did systematically cheat poor people, right.

And while it is easy to blame the lawyers -- a huge chunk of that $581 million would go right into the lawyers' pockets -- plaintiffs' attorneys regularly make an argument in their own defense that many people scoff at, but that is nonetheless compelling: Yes, lawyers take on these cases on a contingency basis (if they win, they get a big percentage of the jury award; if they lose, they get nothing), and yes, this provides them with an incentive to go for the biggest money possible. But, the lawyers argue, if this system were not in place, what recourse would poor clients without power or connections have? How could a poor person ever afford to battle a big corporation, without lawyers willing to take the cases on contingency, and roll the dice?

The rolling-the-dice part is the key here; the courts are beginning to seem like casinos, with everyone hoping for the big jackpot. And when the big jackpot -- say, $581 million for a couple of satellite dishes -- is hit, it tends to renew debates like this one.

So what's the solution, if not $581 million verdicts, or legislatively imposed caps on such verdicts?

Well, I suppose we could try a system where, when a company wrongs a customer, everyone tries to work it out as fair-minded people, doing the right thing out of a sense of conscience and good citizenship.

In other words, justice.

While we wait for that, the courthouse casino is in no danger of closing just yet.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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