Thursday, July 10, 2003
Certain Cases on ‘People’s Court’ Come Readily to Wapner’s Mind
By ROGER M. GRACE
After 20 years on the bench, Joseph A. Wapner was reduced to handling small claims cases. But he didn’t mind. No court could reverse him, and he was the most famous judge in the world.
Retired from the Los Angeles Superior Court, Wapner presided from 1981-93 as judge of a pretend court, but one that adjudicated actual disputes in the form of binding arbitration. “People’s Court” was bound to be in session on TV sets somewhere in the world, at any given time of the day.
In all, there were 2,340 half-hour segments.
Though Wapner couldn’t be reversed, he was surely subject to Monday morning quarterbacking.
“A lot of people disagreed with my decisions,” he remarked.
One viewer, in particular, was a constant critic. When she disagreed with one of his determinations, she’d telephone to let him know of his blunder. “My mother,” he said.
There was one case he decided that he later had cause to think he had botched. As he recalled the case: “A young kid was going through a carwash and claimed a Dodgers game was on, and the antenna was broken—and I believed the kid when he said he was listening to the Dodgers.”
However, it later came to Wapner’s attention that on the day when the antenna purportedly was broken in the carwash, “the Dodgers were not playing….Baseball was on strike.”
Well, if the youth had lied about what he was listening to on radio, chances are he lied about how the antenna came to be broken. Alas, it seemed, Wapner had been snookered.
But, no, it wasn’t so. Further checking showed that while no baseball game had aired that day, Dodgers announcer Vin Scully “was doing a recreation.”
Two cases stand out in Wapner’s mind.
In one, a man was suing over allegedly defective repairs to his clock. Bailiff Rusty Burrell brought it forth and “he dropped the clock on the bench,” resulting in damage, Wapner recounted. The former jurist said he asked the man:
“Well, it was a cheap clock, wasn’t it, sir?”
A clip of that has been shown several times on Dick Clark’s “bloopers” specials, Wapner noted.
The other case was brought by a man who went to a TV repair shop to pick up his set and the owner couldn’t find it. He sued for the value of the unit.
The defendant cross complained for battery. Wapner paraphrased his contention:
“We were arguing, back and forth, in my sleep. We continued that way. I hit myself in the teeth and I knocked out my two front teeth.”
Wapner did not buy that theory.
“I remember saying, ‘You hit yourself—he didn’t hit you,” Wapner said.
Was he the same Judge Wapner on TV that he was in his early days as an actual judge, handling small claims matters?
No, he said.
“You learn a lot as you grow older,” Wapner reflected. “I was probably a better judge on television.
“I had more experience.”
Next week: the return of
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
MetNews Main Page Reminiscing Columns