By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
A D.C. judge's $54 million lawsuit against his neighborhood dry cleaners over a lost pair of gray trousers prompted worldwide ridicule but is now being taken seriously in the Maryland legislature.
If a delegate has her way, dry cleaners in Maryland would be required by law to pay customers for clothing they damaged. Customers might have recourse, for example, if the cleaners stained a dress. And if the garment were damaged beyond repair or lost, the business would have to replace the clothing with a comparable item.
"Give me my recourse," Del. Barbara A. Robinson (D-Baltimore) pleaded before a panel of legislators considering her bill.
Robinson was inspired in part by the case of Roy L. Pearson Jr., a D.C. administrative law judge whose $54 million lawsuit against Custom Cleaners created a media spectacle. A judge dismissed Pearson's suit, leaving him with tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. The case so burdened Korean shop owners Soo and Jin Chung that they closed the Northeast Washington store. They still operate another shop, Happy Cleaners, in Northwest.
Robinson found out yesterday that it might not be politically popular to change state law to require for the first time what dry cleaners must do if they damage or lose clothing.
She was the lone witness testifying for her bill before the House of Delegates' Economic Matters Committee. Scores of dry cleaners, most of them Koreans, attended the hearing to oppose the measure. With industry lobbyists in tow, the launderers packed the hearing room, spilled out into the foyer and sought to display strength in numbers.
Chung K. Pak, testifying on behalf of the Korean Americans Association of Maryland, said Robinson's bill unfairly targets immigrants from Korea, who run many of the dry cleaners. "It's an additional burden, and this special protection is unnecessary," Pak said. The bill "stigmatizes the dry-cleaning industry, which is already burdened by lawsuits."
Robinson said she did not realize her proposal, billed as a consumer protection law, would cause such a stir until last week.
"I came to my office last Monday, and my office was filled with Koreans from D.C. and Maryland," Robinson said. "They see it as me picking on Koreans. They see it as me saying they're responsible for any damages. And that's not what I'm saying."
The outcry was so intense that one delegate who had backed her bill said at the hearing that he was withdrawing as a co-sponsor.
"I see that I've made a mistake," said Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr. (D), who represents the same Baltimore district as Robinson.
The dry cleaners broke out in applause.
"Whoa, whoa," said Del. David D. Rudolph (D-Cecil), who presided over the hearing. "Thank him outside in the hallway."
And that they did. Dozens swarmed around Conaway in the foyer and posed for pictures with him. Then they saw Robinson walk by and surrounded her, prodding her about possible amendments to her bill.
"This is just part of the working day," Robinson said. "I have a lot of opposition. Oh well."