Marine family fails to appear for claim against Seoul shop
July 24, 2007
SEOUL — A mix-up over airplane tickets that led the U.S. Embassy Association Business Center to close its travel agency service hit another stumbling block in South Korean small claims court on Friday.
A South Korean judge could only hold a partial session Friday in the case of an American military family who is suing the center — because the family didn’t show up.
Marine Col. Thompson Gerke, and his wife, Catherine, want nearly $12,000 for a March 2006 airline ticket mix-up in which they received business-class, not first-class seats.
Gerke, who had served as deputy commander of Marine Forces Korea, left South Korea with his wife on Tuesday for a new assignment. Catherine said last week that they were giving legal status to a friend to represent them in court, but declined to name the person.
Friday’s session was to be the third meeting in front of Judge Dang U-jeung. During an earlier session, Dang suggested the business pay the family $4,000 as a settlement.
On Friday, Dang asked business center employee Jimmy Park whether they had reached an agreement with the family.
Park said the family won’t take anything less than $11,054 and that Catherine created a scene in his store after the last court session. Park said she was lying on the floor of his shop screaming disparaging remarks about his business in front of other customers and he was forced to call the military police. Dang told Park to put his complaints in writing and submit them to the court.
Catherine Gerke did not respond to an overnight Stars and Stripes e-mail sent Friday.
Earlier this month, she provided Stars and Stripes with more than 140 pages of documents, including e-mail messages, 8th Army legal opinions and the findings of Yongsan Garrison’s Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board.
The Gerkes paid the business center nearly $18,000 on what they thought were first-class tickets to Virginia when Catherine’s mother died in March 2006. Catherine said she was recovering from back surgery at the time and was following doctor’s orders that required her to lie flat during the trip. At the airport, however, they learned they had business-class seats and paid the airline an additional $5,527 to upgrade to first-class on the U.S.-bound flight.
They’ve spent 16 months fighting for money they say they are owed and trying to have the center — a contracted vendor — closed. They say the business center should pay them the cost of the upgrade had they flown first-class round-trip, even though they returned to South Korea in business class. They say Army lawyers advised them they are owed $11,054 — even though they only spent $5,527 for a one-way upgrade.
Catherine said flying business class back to Seoul caused her so much pain she was lying “puking and gagging on the belly of the plane.”
Park told Stripes his business misread the ticket codes and poor English translation exacerbated the problem, but that they offered to pay the exact amount the Gerkes paid to upgrade their tickets.
The issue was brought to Yongsan’s Armed Forces Disciplinary Control Board, the body charged with determining whether an establishment should be placed off-limits.
After the board ruled in favor of the center, Catherine tried to get 8th Army commander Lt. Gen. David Valcourt to overturn the ruling, but he declined. She said she sought meetings with USFK Commander Gen. B.B. Bell and U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow but that their staff members declined her requests.
She filed a congressional complaint and USFK deputy commander Air Force Lt. Gen. Stephen Wood sent a three-page response to Sen. John Warner, R-Va.
In that letter, which the Gerkes provided to Stripes, Wood stated the issue was a private commercial matter.
A Stripes query to Warner’s office last week went unanswered.
“There is no further action that U.S. Forces Korea can or appropriately should take in this case,” Wood wrote. “To do so would potentially violate the Joint Ethics Regulations by using a public office for the private gain of another.”
The business center continues to offer Internet and communications services.