June 24, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
The restaurant business is difficult on a good day, and frustrating on a bad day. When we walk into an IHOP, Denny’s, Sizzler or any of the major chains, most of us leave with a positive feeling, having obtained good value for the money spent, served by competent restaurant staff. But there is another class of customer, the person who walks into a restaurant looking for a way to manufacture or to turn a minor incident into a quick buck, or to simply finish a meal and then run out the back door.
“You would be amazed at the nicely dressed people who come in here and order a full breakfast, and then, holding a cell phone to their ear, simply walk outside and never return,” Victor Romero told me recently. He’s been a client of mine for more than 20 years, and owns two popular restaurants that specialize in pancakes. Coming to America over 40 years ago from Peru, Victor mastered English, acquired a good education, saved his money and purchased one, and then a second restaurant and has over 30 employees.
With a legitimate complaint, most restaurant owners or managers will immediately discount a bill or just pick up the tab, but occasionally, things do not seem right, and the company’s lawyer should be immediately brought in. That’s exactly what happened when Victor called me with a very different customer complaint.
“A group of college students were in and one claimed to have brushed up against a plug that somehow arced, burning her jeans. Even though she was uninjured and we discounted their meal, she e-mailed corporate management asking for her jeans to be paid for. If they truly are damaged, we will, of course, but something seems out of the ordinary,” victor said. I immediately phoned her cell number, which was a North Carolina number.
After explaining why I was calling, she explained that she is a college student, working on a California election campaign, and that the plug indeed burned a hole in her jeans which cost $60. “We are happy to pay you for them, so come over, pick up a check and sign a release,” I said, adding, “Also, please bring the jeans so that I can look at them.”
Back from the trash!
“But I tossed them in the trash, because they smelled so bad,” she said. “Well, no proof of damage, then I can’t pay you,” I replied, politely ending the conversation. A few minutes later, “I got them out of the trash and will be over at 2 p.m., she said.
At 2:30 into my office strolled an absolutely gorgeous – we would learn – 19-year-old college student, dressed in an outfit that had the word expensive written all over. Dripping in elegant pearls, and a designer blouse, she handed me the pair of jeans.
They looked virtually brand new, with the exception of a tear – a designer, sewn-in tear-in a leg front. I could find no evidence of a “smelly burn” anywhere. “So, where’s the burn?” I asked. She pointed to a circle the size of a quarter that was just a touch orange/reddish in color. I smelled it. Clean as a whistle. No evidence of any damage. “Well, I just washed them,” was her response. “I’m sure you did. In less than two hours, a thick pair of smelly, burned jeans was washed, dried and ironed. Yup, I am sure you did…”
“Here is a release and our check for $60. If you sign, the money is yours and your jeans are ours,” I said. She read the release that had standard language dealing with Insurance Fraud. While reading it, I took her jeans into a conference I was having with Servicemaster of Bakersfield – a company who knows what fire damage looks like. They could find no evidence of a bun, only the small tear in the front.
Walking back to the college student, now working in politics (talk about irony) I said, “It sure looks to me that you are attempting to commit fraud, and are too young to start out life that way. I will give you the money, if you insist, but realize that we all know you are trying to pull a fast one. If you do not want the money, sign a statement that there was no injury and no damage to your clothing. It’s your choice.”
Defrauding an innkeeper and fraud
Her efforts to scam my client amounted to Defrauding an Innkeeper and Fraud, both of which punishable by up to one year in custody. “You aren’t nice to me!” little miss crook whined. “Yup, I’m not nice. I may be keeping you out of jail and hopefully will have some affect on your future, but you are absolutely right. I am rarely described as nice when dealing with dishonest people,” I replied.
She signed the statement, took her jeans and left the office. It was one small victory, far more important than the $60 my client was prepared to pay. Wrong did not triumph over right that day.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.