NEW YORK -- The man just wanted a cold can of beer, that's all. He opened it, drank the suds and pronounced the fluid flat. Normally, it would have been 75 cents down the drain, but there's principle involved here.
A lawsuit was filed in California Small Claims Court and the wheels of justice began spinning. It was only a matter of time before the flat beer became a national issue, a case suitable for consumption on 'The People's Court,' television's attempt at finding justice for the common man.
Joseph A. Wapner, a retired judge, presides over the nationally syndicated show that airs in about 200 cities in 20 countries and settles actual civil disputes on the air. Judging by the ratings, the half-hour program is a big hit in its fifth year. Money matters aside, 'The People's Court' has eased people's fear of the courts, actually changed the legal systems in some states and resulted in a slew of new TV shows using the courtroom as the backdrop.
Back to the flat beer.
'This man spent $6 to file the case, $14 to serve the papers - he's spending $20 just to get his 75 cents back,' recalled the judge. 'I ruled for the man with the beer.
'Most of the cases involve small amounts of money, but large amounts of principle.'
Wapner is folksy, fair, wise and witty, dispensing justice like a country doctor dispenses medicine.
There is no dispute too trivial for Judge Wapner. Dog bites, stained carpets, lost dry cleaning and strippers who don't strip become gargantuan issues in 'The People's Court.'
Of course Wapner's rulings make sense, and that is what makes the show so popular. The good guy usually wins and it is usually obvious which litigant wears the white hat.
'I hate liars,' said Wapner, who was visiting the Toy Fair in New York to promote a new board game, 'The People's Court.' 'I abhor lying.'
In Wapner's courtroom, there are no lawyers, no handcuffs, and little formality. Justice is swift and plenty. If the audience is lucky, two cases are settled in one half-hour, with lots of time left for commercials.
Researchers for the show have no trouble finding cases. They sift through lawsuits filed in 30 Small Claims courts in California and like game-show contestants, litigants must be worthy of television. Candidates are interviewed in person, but the plaintiff and defendant never meet before the case comes to TV court. They tell it to the judge, and then comes the justice part.
Wapner recesses, a commercial airs, and then he returns with the verdict.
'I get to explain my decision at the end of the case in lay language,' Wapner said. 'It teaches people that when a small amount of money is concerned (under $1,500), there is a place they can go without a lawyer. It also teaches them how to present a case, how to prepare. That's what I've been preaching.'
Viewers often write directly to Wapner seeking his advice.
'On my desk is a letter from a lady asking whether I would arbitrate her divorce case. I haven't made up my mind yet, but I don't want to set a precedent.'
The show has received high marks from judges who point out that litigants are showing up more prepared. In Arizona, violations which used to be criminal misdemeanors will become civil violations -- just like 'The People's Court.' School children visit 'The People's Court' for a first-hand look at Small Claims court.
The show also has won acclaim. Wapner received the Media of the Year Award from the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association in 1984 and the Distinguished Service Award from the California Judges Association in 1985.
Maybe the reason lawyers and judges like Wapner so much is that he is true-to-life, a staunch believer in the legal system, and a general all-around good guy who does their image no harm.
Wapner decided on pre-law just before he joined the Army for World War II. There, he defended court-martial cases. After the war, he practiced general law for a decade before being appointed a Small Claims judge in California. More than 20 years on the Municipal and Superior Court benches followed. Eventually, he was chosen by fellow judges to be Presiding Judge of the Superior Court -- the largest court in the United States -- before he retired.
Indeed, Wapner lost only one case in his career and that was before he was a practicing lawyer. As assistant credit manager of a jewelry store, it was Wapner's job to take people to court when they didn't pay. His first case proved a lifelong lesson in law. A woman bought a chest of silverplate but stopped paying. Wapner's job was to get the rest of the money.
'The lady turns to the judge and says, 'I can't afford to pay for this,'' Wapner remembered. 'The judge says, 'Mr. Wapner, why don't you take the chest of silver back.''
'The judge made me realize that I didn't want to be in the jewelry business.'