If you follow the news, you've probably seen a fluff article or two recently about a guy suing his movie date for texting during a showing of the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. No matter what you think about the movie, it's well understood that bothering other theater patrons by talking or texting is pretty rude behavior. It doesn't seem very lawsuit-worthy at all though, which is why the news picked up on the peculiar nature of the story and amplified it. After all, why in Star-Lord's name would anyone file suit for a grand total of $17.31?
That's the sort of behavior that sets tort reformers to sharpening their pitchforks and practicing their battle cries of "frivolous" and "wastes taxpayer money!" Fortunately, the law has ways to accommodate low-stakes lawsuits that don't clog the system. At the risk of bursting the outrage bubble, I'd say that as stupid as this case is, it's not an example of the justice system gone wrong.
For those who haven't run across the story, here's the gist:
37-year-old Austin man Brandon Vezmar recently filed suit in a Travis County small claims court, seeking compensation from his unnamed movie date in the amount of $17.31--the money he spent on her ticket for the 3D screening of Guardians 2 on May 6. According to Vezmar, his date pulled out her phone several times in the dark theater, texting a friend and disrupting the movie. Vezmar alleged he asked her to stop the behavior but she refused. His claim says he then suggested she go to the theater's lobby if she could not help but have her phone out. His date complied, but then decided simply to leave the theater, ending the date entirely. She and Vezmar had arrived together in her car, leaving him without his expected ride home.
Those are the main complaints from Vezmar's filed petition, ending with this gem:
"While damages sought are modest (certainly an understatement), the principle is important as defendant's behavior is a threat to civilized society."
How Did This Become a Lawsuit?
I don't care for rude people interrupting movies either, but legal action seems pretty melodramatic. Language like "A threat to civilized society" should be reserved for something a bit worse--maybe riots, disruption of the power grid, or a hammer-and-sickle-stamped atom bomb dropping on our soil. Some jerk (or jerkette) selfishly playing with a phone at a bad time isn't a challenge to our way of life--if anything, it's probably an appropriate illustration of it. So why litigate? I have a couple of theories.
One idea is that the plaintiff just overreacted in a big and public way. According to reports, Vezmar contacted his date soon after the abortive outing and asked her to pay him back for the cost of her ticket. After she refused to repay him, he allegedly sought out her younger sister on social media to get his money.
When you harass someone's family members for a grievance of less than 20 bucks, it might be time to take a deep breath and reconsider. He also allegedly continued his righteous crusade on Twitter, smearing his date as "flaky" and "a texting floozy." Whatever his personal opinions about rudeness or modern dating culture (or his hurt feelings about getting ditched at the movies), I think most would see a sustained smear campaign as too much.
A second theory seems more likely: Having already demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit by starting his own communications consulting firm, Vezmar found a way to rack up a lot of free press and controversy, spreading his name around through the power of viral shares, memes, and "hey look at this" news blurbs.
Oscar Wilde once said "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," which can be paraphrased as "There's no such thing as bad publicity." Maybe that's Vezmar's point of view as well. Even if some people think this is a petty and overblown reaction to being stood up, others eagerly agree that the texting date is the villainess of the situation. No matter their opinions, though, both camps will likely remember and discuss "The Movie Ticket Lawsuit Guy" for a while. It's almost like someone who is trained in manipulating media--someone you might "consult" about "communications," for example--found a way to spin a crummy situation into an opportunity.
People Are Playing Along.
The signal of this whole kerfuffle is getting boosted thanks to the Internet's insatiable hunger for oddities. If I'm right that this is a stunt, it may be seeing dividends already, as Vezmar's situation caught the attention of some celebrities. For instance,Guardians of the Galaxy's director James Gunn chimed in via Twitter, joking that the woman who ignored his film should get jail time instead of enduring a civil lawsuit.
Possibly sensing a short-lived star to which he could hitch a wagon, Tim League, founder and CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of movie theaters, issued a statement full of mock-gravity about how the texter's offense is serious but the courts should be spared the burden of more small-time suits. League offered Vezmar the sought amount of $17.31 in an Alamo gift certificate provided he drops the suit, sliding the theaters neatly into the limelight with him and reaping positive press for his altruism. In the meantime, news blurbs about the ordeal are being posted to social media, tweeted and re-tweeted, and reaching eyes and minds that otherwise would never have known to give Vezmar one glance, let alone a second. He explained his actions in a recent tweet:
"I filed my theater texting lawsuit because online dating etiquette is at such a low ebb it needs to be actively corrected. People know what I mean, which is part of why the story went viral. Enough is enough of the nut-job, self-centered, bizarro-land experiences."
There's no word about whether he appreciates the irony of criticizing "bizarro-land experiences" while suing someone over a movie ticket.
The Law Will Handle This.
Media attention aside, this lawsuit is nuts. Bananas. A third food-based euphemism for crazy. I don't like movie texters either, but dang--really? This is either an incredibly uptight guy who is SUPER overreacting to a bad date, or a quick-thinking opportunist who's spinning straw into gold in a profoundly asinine way.
My money's on the latter. Vezmar might genuinely believe this is a hill to die on, but it seems far more feasible that he doesn't really give a damn about "threats to civilized society" or whatever absurd rhetoric he's pushing. At most he was mad about a bad date, and then he remembered the Internet makes it laughably easy to get carried away with basically anything. Now his name is published and he gets all the gratification of seeing online strangers agree with him. His new (if hopefully brief) celebrity ought to generate a nice uptick in his consulting business, since some firms may decide they can benefit from association with a "crusader for online dating etiquette."
What we really have here is an example into which tort reformers will happily but erroneously sink their teeth. After all, what could fit their "frivolous lawsuits" narrative better than suing for hurt feelings and a movie ticket? Here's the thing to remember if they start wailing about "another waste of the legal system's time:" A special court exists to handle claims like these.
Small-claims court is specifically designed to handle the relatively benign complaints of one individual against another. Say my neighbors' dog chews up my prize-winning gardenias, or their brat kid dents my car with a baseball, or whatever flavor of tepid suburban dustup you prefer. I can take them before a small-claims judge and we'll settle our differences away from the courts that handle more convoluted or serious cases. Small claims serves an important purpose by handling these easily-mediated, low-severity concerns. I don't want to knock its purpose and worth; I'm only pointing out that the venue fits the case. Brandon Vezmar isn't going to be complaining about his date in front of SCOTUS any time soon, because his pride and the peanuts he's seeking can both be dealt with in small claims court, and small claims court is, for all intents and purposes, "stupid-case court."
But even considering that stupid cases often find a home in small claims court, does this particular stupid case stand a chance? It's doubtful. Bad dates stink, but they're not usually grounds for litigation. Small claims court is still bound by the same laws as any other venue when it comes to rendering awards. It's going to be tough to provide objective proof that the movie was ruined by the woman's texting. Consider how this would probably play out in front of a TV arbitrator like Judge Judy and you can see exactly why we don't actually have a "court system gone wrong" crisis here--that old harpy would rake this plaintiff over the coals. That's the part the tort reforming hand-wringers seem to conveniently forget. Even in a courtroom where petty nonsense is normal, that doesn't mean that ALL petty nonsense is allowed.
Prestigious Judge Richard Posner once said "Only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30." Since the proposed sum is only half of that, maybe the plaintiff is actually both.