Corporate America Pays Price for Arrogance in Taking Family’s Home

Random Repost Blast from the Past. Going to start off each day with a random repost from the archives…

Corporate America pays price for arrogance in taking family’s home
John L. Smith

A stone against a giant. David dropped Goliath with a well-placed rock. But in corporate America, the best most little guys can hope for is putting a knot on the giant’s noggin and escaping with a little cash.

That, in short, is what Gerald and Katrina Thitchener and their children have to show for their courtroom victory over mortgage lending behemoth Countrywide Home Loans.

Friday’s jury verdict was swift and in a better world would have sent a message to all big, arrogant corporations: “Clean up your act.”

The couple won $922,690 to compensate them for having their home wrongly foreclosed and sold.

They were awarded $2.5 million in punitive damages after a jury found the obvious: The arrogant giant failed to apologize for accidentally selling off their condominium and destroying their personal property.

It was hardball from the start.

Why?

Big corporations know hardball works because most little guys can’t go the distance.

When I first reported the Thitcheners’ plight in January 2004, they were struggling to keep their case alive after hiring attorneys Terry Coffing and Terry Moore.

Gerald was a former Air Force F-16 mechanic who moved to Tucson after his Air National Guard unit was activated. Katrina followed with the couple’s children and left the condo near Nellis Air Force Base locked and partially filled with their possessions.

In a screw-up Countrywide only later admitted partial responsibility for, the Thitcheners’ unit was mistakenly foreclosed and sold. Their personal items, including photos and Katrina’s wedding dress, were thrown out.

Most of the material facts in the case were settled prior to trial. Damning depositions revealed that the company’s mistakes cost the Thitcheners dearly.

But it’s what followed that should anger everyone in the valley. Instead of owning up, the company lawyered up.

It was asinine, but it’s also the way of corporate America.

No doubt the Thitcheners’ attorneys salivated at the obvious jury appeal of the story of an Air Force mechanic getting pushed around by a large corporation, but then the facts endorsed the assessment. Among many: The Thitcheners continued to make their mortgage payments from Arizona and to pay the condo’s light bill. They’d abandoned nothing; they’d merely relocated.

Countrywide denied its blunder was “willful and deliberate” and shouldn’t be punished for merely taking away a family’s home and belongings. That’s arrogance personified.

On Friday, a jury agreed.

While appeals are possible, Countrywide would be wise to let this debacle fade.

The company wouldn’t even admit the family lost anything of real value. Admittedly, family photos and a wedding dress are hard to put a price on, but they’re even harder to replace.

Ask yourself this: What are your family photos worth? And how about all those other items of sentimental and personal value?

Better yet, what do you suppose Countrywide’s CEO would have done if someone had swiped his home?

The manhunt would be on.

Ask yourself what you would be tempted to do to a person who, while you were off on military duty, stole your house and sold it?

The Thitcheners will get a majority of the nearly $3.5 million they were awarded from a company that in 2004 netted $2.2 billion.

The award must look like a fortune to the Thitcheners, who had trouble paying their monthly bills; but to the giant it’s a veritable write-off.

It’s naive to think the judgment will teach a large corporation a lesson in customer relations. Such decisions usually don’t make life better for other victimized families. On the contrary. A lawyer is probably already drafting additional “hold harmless” language to make it even tougher to litigate future mistakes.

Instead of improving training, there will be checks cut in the name of tort reform. It’s easier for some companies to change definitions than admit mistakes.

That $3.5 million won’t change the world, but it will buy a nice new house for the Thitcheners with plenty left over.

A stone against a giant.

Hey, Goliath, how’s that head feel now?

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0295.

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Country Wide Home Loans v. Thitchener
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