The Economics of Reality Court TV Shows (Behind-The-Scenes)

gavelforsaleHave you ever wondered how the participants get paid in court TV shows like Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, or The People’s Court? Over the weekend, I got this tweet from a casting director for a new court TV show where a celebrity gets to be the judge:

I’m guessing this is due to a previous guest post on Winning Our Case in Small Claims Court. Here’s the recruitment flyer:

CV9uhmWUkAABz5p.jpg-large

Of course, me being me, I found the payment details the most interesting:

  • If you win the case, you are guaranteed to collect because the show pays the judgment directly to the winner.
  • If you lose the case, you don’t have to pay anything, again because the show pays the judgment for you.
  • No matter what, both parties will receive an appearance fee.

I found some related details from the Wikipedia page of the Judge Judy show:

  • The award limit on these types of shows is usually $5,000, the same as “real” small claims court.
  • The appearance fees varies, but is in the neighborhood of a few hundred dollars plus $35 a day if it takes multiple days. They pay may also pay for your airfare and hotel if you are not from the area.
  • Most of the audience extras are comprised of (low) paid (aspiring) actors.

For an honest disagreement, this seems to be a pretty fair arrangement. Both parties will still want to win the case, but both will stand to benefit financially. The show gets cheap material (court shows are much cheaper to make than sitcoms), and the audience gets entertained.

However, in the style of Freakonomics, this incentive structure can create unexpected consequences. Namely, fabricated lawsuits. If you think about it, dishonest conspirators can get a paid vacation to Los Angeles, an appearance fee, seen on TV, and they can split up to a $5,000 judgment. An example per Wikipedia:

In April 2013, former litigants from a 2010 airing of the show revealed they conspired together in fabricating a lawsuit in which the logical outcome would be to grant payment to the plaintiff. The operation, derived by musicians Kate Levitt and Jonathan Coward, was successful: Sheindlin awarded the plaintiff (Levitt) $1,250. The litigants involved also walked away with an appearance fee of $250 each and an all expense paid vacation to Hollywood, California. In reality, all the litigants in question—plaintiffs and defendants alike—were friends who split the earnings up among each other. It was also reported that the show’s producers were in on the sham and knew of the contrivance all along but went along with it. The lawsuit was over the fictitious death of a cat as a result of a television crushing it.

The judge does have somewhat of an “out” with the option of dismissal without prejudice, which means that there is no decision and the lawsuit may be refiled and retried in another forum.

[Judge Judy] Sheindlin has dismissed cases without prejudice when she has suspected both the plaintiff(s) and defendant(s) of conspiring together just to gain monetary rewards from the program.

If you have a case, please contact Mr. Simnowitz, and don’t forget to tell me about it if you get on TV!

Winning Our Case in Small Claims Court

The following is a guest post from reader Elle, who shares her story above being treated poorly by her mechanic and how she got justice via small claims court. She writes about handling family and finances responsibly at CoupleMoney.com

I will tell you right now that suing someone is a tedious and process. I know this because had to do it to recover money due to our auto shop’s big mistake. We couldn’t afford a lawyer, so we represented ourselves against the shop’s lawyer and won. Before I get start on how we did it, I should explain how we ended up in the position where we had to sue.

Car Repair Gone Bad

We had used this repair shop before and never had any trouble. If a repair was going to take longer than a day, they would call us when the work was completed. When I made arrangements with the mechanic he said it would take a couple of days for the work on the transmission.

After a few days, we hadn’t heard anything so my husband called to check the status of the car. The cashier told him it was already fixed and had been waiting for a while. My husband was surprised they didn’t call him as agreed, but also happy he could get his car back. He paid for the car repair and was given the keys. They attendant pointed out that the car was off the lot, parked on the street. Where we live, it is common knowledge that certain city streets flood on a regular basis. Everyone moves their cars to another street or higher ground as a precaution. This shop had been there 30 years. As you can probably imagine, the car was wet on the inside. My husband was able to start it and went home.

After going around the corner and driving a 1/10th of a mile, the car sputtered and died (a span of 5 minutes). My husband pushed it to a side street and called the shop immediately. He explained the problem and was told that he should let the car dry out.

Long story short, the car didn’t start. The repair shop they were not responsible. They said that a thunderstorm, not a hurricane or tropical storm, was an ‘act of God’. The rain accumulated on the street and water got into the car.

Giving Us a Hard Time

Seeing as we’ve done business with them before, we requested that they tow it and identify the damage in the car. We were willing to work with them, thinking that they would feel some responsibility. Unfortunately, they were unwilling to budge. The shop claimed that we called in the evening instead of immediately afterward. Even though we had proof we made the call, they ignored our calls.

We were frustrated and down to one car. Eventually we were able to find another mechanic who was able to diagnose the problem and fix it. The problem was that the repairs for the electrical work were over a grand and we had to get a rental car.

After much deliberation, we decided to go ahead and file a small claims lawsuit.

Preparing for Small Claims Court

[Read more…]