Agnes Lang sums up her first head-on collision with the legal system in her 79 years like this: "It was as much of a lemon as that car those people sold me."
The Tempe resident sued East Valley Jeep Eagle in 1989, claiming salesmen had hoodwinked her on the value and condition of the 1987 Plymouth Horizon. (New Times detailed the suit in its January 15 issue.)
But a jury decided against Mrs. Lang after a trial punctuated by controversial rulings from Superior Court Judge Marilyn A. Riddel, a jurist noted for her reversals by the appellate courts.
The jury returned with its verdict shortly after the one-day trial ended. The dealership, the panel ruled, doesn't owe Agnes Lang a penny.
"I thought this was America and that both sides got an equal chance to tell their stories," says Mrs. Lang, a widow who works part-time at a Wendy's. "So much stuff didn't come out. I feel terrible. They are a real crooked bunch."
Counters Kevin Sweeney, a lawyer for Jeep Eagle: "Agnes Lang has now had her day in court, and the jury has ruled against her. East Valley Jeep Eagle was vindicated with the jury's verdict. Obviously, the jury believed that nothing untoward transpired between the dealership, its personnel and Mrs. Lang. ..."
But Judge Riddel had made matters difficult, if not impossible, for Agnes Lang and her attorney. Mrs. Lang's lawyer, Steven Cheifetz, wanted to show the jury evidence of Jeep Eagle's history of allegedly ripping off customers. Cheifetz also asked Judge Riddel to allow the jury the opportunity to assess punitive damages.
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But before the trial started, the judge ruled: "The fact that East Valley Jeep Eagle may be devious/crooked is not relevant."
The Arizona Court of Appeals overturned that ruling before Mrs. Lang's trial even began. Still, Riddel disallowed any discussion of punitive damages at the trial, and also excluded the testimony of key witnesses on Mrs. Lang's behalf. Attorney Cheifetz says he plans to appeal.
Mrs. Lang's son, John, says he has been trying to convince his mother to put the episode in perspective. "Since the verdict," John Lang says, "I've told her, `Mom, it's just a damn car. Let's not let it ruin everything.' But if you knew her, you'd understand where she's coming from. She trusts people, but she got taken by the car dealer and now by this Judge Riddel."
Agnes Lang still drives the 1987 Plymouth that Jeep Eagle sold her "as is" on July 1, 1989. "The car is undependable," she claims. "It's broken down on the highway, and it's had about $1,500 in repairs since I bought it. But it will probably be my last car. I'm almost 80. How long do they let people drive before they take their license away?