The Economist magazine takes a look at the law in America – a wonderful thing, they comment, but can you have too much of a wonderful thing?

Americans are still chuckling about the “pants suit”. A man—a judge, no less—sued his dry cleaners for $54m for allegedly losing his trousers. A sign at the shop promised “Satisfaction Guaranteed”. The plaintiff was not satisfied, so he cried fraud.

He then used his highly trained legal brain to calculate the damages he was owed. He started with $1,500, a reasonable fine for consumer fraud. He multiplied it by 12, for the number of his complaints.

Then by 1,200, for the number of days he was deprived of his trousers. And then by three, for the three owners of the dry-cleaning shop. After adding a bit more for mental anguish, the total came to $67m, but he kindly reduced it to $54m.

When the case was dismissed in 2007, many felt justice had prevailed. But the defendants had been put through purgatory and saddled with $100,000 in legal costs. They closed the shop and considered moving back to South Korea. The case illustrates “an important truth about human nature—that angry people can go nuts,” observes Philip Howard, a campaigner for legal reform.

What was most shocking about the pants suit was not the idiotic claim, he says, “but that the case was allowed to go on for more than two years.” Some judges think even the nuttiest plaintiffs deserve their day in court. As the judge who let a woman sue McDonald’s for serving her the coffee with which she scalded herself put it: “Who am I to judge?”

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