After repeated attempts to collect a $77 newspaper bill, Ohio paperboy Eric Tolman took his customer to small claims court.
Eric won, but by then the customer, Air Force Lt. Col. Joseph Driscoll, had moved to Manhattan Beach--outside the Ohio municipal court's jurisdiction.
The boy's father, Thomas Tolman, says he sent Driscoll a letter and a copy of the court's decision last September, but got no reply. So Eric sent a letter explaining the situation to Driscoll's current employer, the Los Angeles Air Force Station in El Segundo.
This time they got a response: Driscoll is suing 16-year-old Eric and his parents for $150,000. Driscoll says in his suit that the letter contained malicious statements that have damaged his reputation and career.
"It's a surprise that someone with the resources of that man would go after someone like us," Thomas Tolman said. " . . . We're working-class people. I never in my life will have $150,000 at one time, and by the time I pay my attorney, I won't have any life's savings."
The Tolmans live in Beavercreek, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Dayton.
According to Driscoll's lawsuit, Eric's letter to the Air Force said, "I also thought you might be interested in knowing that an officer who probably has access to military secrets is dishonest and has gone out of his way to cheat a 14-year-old boy out of $77." Tolman was 14 when he first attempted to collect the Dayton Daily News bill from Driscoll, who was then stationed at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
Thomas Tolman declined to comment on the letter's contents.
The Tolmans' attorney, Phillip Beard, said the letter was not intended to harass, nag or defame Driscoll, but was only an attempt to collect the money.
"It's a lot of money for a 14-year-old," Beard said. When customers did not pay for their subscriptions, Eric, not the newspaper, was out the money, he said.
"It appears that the plaintiff has gone overboard here. Had he paid his newspaper bill, none of this would have happened," Beard said. Thomas Tolman said the bill still has not been paid.
Driscoll said in a brief telephone interview Wednesday that he does not owe the money. He would not say how Eric's letter damaged his career. He said he wrote several letters to the Dayton newspaper saying he did not owe the money and asking for help, but got no response.
According to Fairborn Municipal Court records filed along with Eric's complaint in July, 1985, Driscoll had paid Tolman $15 of a $99 bill the previous May.
On Tuesday, Driscoll moved to reopen the small-claims case, according to Civil Court Referee Richard Richman, who has not decided whether the case will be reopened. Driscoll has contacted the municipal court several times through letters and phone calls since the judgment was issued, complaining about the judgment and saying he did not owe the money, Richman said.
However, Driscoll refused to accept a certified notice of the complaint and summons before the small-claims case was heard and did not appear at the hearing, the referee said, and he ruled in favor of the paperboy.
Driscoll's lawyer, David A. Orlins, declined to discuss the case.
Tolman said his son sent his letter to the Air Force on the advice of a clerk in the small-claims court. The clerk, George Butts, said he is not allowed to give advice, but acknowledged that he told the Tolmans that people in similar situations sometimes contact the employers of those unwilling to pay.
Tolman said that after Eric wrote to the Air Force, Driscoll wrote to the parents and denied liability for the $77 bill and said that the Tolmans should not write to his employer.
Eric quit his paper route about a year ago to become more active at Beavercreek High School, where he now is in the 11th grade. He still works part time for the Daily News, buying papers from the company and selling them to carriers.
But he no longer deals with subscribers.