Pictured above is Judy Sheindlin, better known as “Judge Judy,” the retired judge who now plays one on TV (and on the show of the same name). Her show features various litigants in a small claims setting — real court cases decided by a once-real judge, but in this case in front of the cameras and edited for broadcast. For the litigants, at least in theory, the show provides a fast track to getting their case adjudicated and, perhaps more importantly, for a little bit of fame.
Oh, and you get a free trip to Los Angeles, too. Just ask this guy.
That’s a screen shot from an episode of Judge Judy dating back to 2010. As is often the case with what would be now known as “reality TV,” the stranger the story, the better the ratings — and a pretty strange story is what got the man above onto televisions nationwide. Here’s a link to the video, but a recap is below — just in case Judge Judy’s lawyers get to that clip before you get to watch it.
On November 5, 2009, a 24-year-old unemployed musician named Kate Levitt hosted a gathering and invited, among others, her perfectly-named friend, Jonathan Coward. Levitt testified that Coward was rip-roaring drunk, and, while the others were out renting a movie, Coward began smashing stuff. Specifically, he threw one of Levitt’s television sets at the wall, destroying it, and then, did the same with the second. As the caption from the image above already gives away, Levitt’s pet cat, Trips, was the victim of that second thrown television; the cat didn’t survive the impact. (Coward also threw a third television — Levitt’s roommate needed a lot of TVs as A/V equipment for some sort of performance.) Levitt was asking the “court” for $1,000 to replace the cost of the smashed televisions, and arguably, to replace the cat.
Judge Judy found for the plaintiff, awarding her the full $1,000, even though Sheindlin didn’t believe the cat had died — it didn’t appear in any of the photos, and she found it implausible that Levitt had, per a witness’s explanation, immediately buried the animal. Regardless, the story — combined with Coward’s ex-boyfriend making snide remarks to Judge Judy on the side (at one point, saying “alright mama” to Her Honor), the whole thing made for great faux small claims court television.
The only problem? The story never happened.
A few months later, Kate, Jonathan, and two of their friends admitted that they made the whole thing up. And no, it wasn’t (just) about getting on television.
As Consumerist explains, “the defendant loses, the TV product team pays the plaintiff the judgment fee. If the judge finds for the defendant, both parties receive an appearance fee.” And, per a VICE interview with Coward (in which he admits that the story was a lie), if you’re not in the LA area (where Judge Judy is filmed), the producers will fly you in and put you up in a nice hotel for a night or two and even pick up some of your meal tabs. Wikipedia sums up the haul as $1,250 for Levitt (as the victorious plaintiff), $250 for each of the others (as appearance fees), and a trip to Hollywood paid for by Judge Judy’s production company. According to the Daily Mail, the quartet didn’t let the money burn a hole in their pockets: they “immediately rented a convertible Mustang, drove to Malibu and drank champagne in a hot tub all day.”
If that sounds like a good deal, well, there’s a catch — the gambit was potentially illegal. Many court shows require that the litigants actually file a case with their local court; if Levitt and Coward did so (more so Levitt as plaintiff), they filed a lie. And that’s probably not okay. (But Judge Judy’s team didn’t seem to care, as they didn’t sue for fraud or press criminal charges.)
On the other hand, a fake lawsuit has one advantage over a real one: the cat doesn’t have to die. As Coward told VICE, the cat was real and, as far as Coward knew, was still alive at the time of the interview. But not everything ended up smiles. Per Coward, “[Trips] did end up running away, like, pretty soon after the show, though.”
From the Archives: The Great Bread Squeezing Crime Spree of the Late 1990s : It didn’t make Judge Judy, but it probably should have.
Related: “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining: America’s Toughest Family Court Judge Speaks Out” by Judy Sheindlin. A+ title, 4.5 star book.