Ronnie Polaneczky: A battle for honor ... and a burger

David Morton shows off his "Hamburglar" tattoo, a reminder of his 90-minute stint behind bars.
David Morton shows off his "Hamburglar" tattoo, a reminder of his 90-minute stint behind bars. (P.C. MARX / FOR THE DAILY NEWS)
Posted: September 14, 2012

WHEN SOME people get crappy customer service, they whine a bit and then return to what they were doing before they got their socks in a knot. Others post a smelly review on Yelp.

But few people, I'm guessing, would rather go to jail than cave to bad treatment at the establishment where they felt dissed.

David Morton is one of the few. He has the arrest record, the $1,500-plus legal fees and the tattoo to remind him right is right and wrong is wrong.

Tom Vickerman prefers to forget Morton's arrest at Via Marconi, the pizza pub/sports bar Vickerman owns in Towamencin, Montgomery County.

"I'm used to dealing with dissatisfied customers. It's part of the business," especially at a sports bar where lots of beer is consumed. "You just work things out," he says. "But I've never dealt with someone" like Morton.

Their 18-month legal battle would've been moot had either man backed down. But then there'd be no tale to tell about those who will fight for principle, no matter how low the stakes.

It was Oct. 29, 2010. Morton, 49, a married father and a steamfitter, stopped into Via Marconi. He ordered two beers and a Marconi burger, which is topped with olives, pepperoni and mozzarella. When the burger arrived, he says, he took a few bites before realizing it had no olives. This was no Marconi! He says the waitress wouldn't replace it, noting that Morton had already enjoyed a few healthy mouthfuls.

"I said, 'Can you just bring me some olives?' " recalls Morton, who had also ordered a glass of wine. "She wouldn't."

So, Morton says, he told her he wouldn't pay for the burger. Vickerman was summoned.

"I said, 'I'll pay for the drinks, but I'm not paying for the burger,' " says Morton. "He says, 'You pay the whole thing or I'm calling the police.' I said, 'Fine.' "

Vickerman remembers it differently. He says olives were offered and he also offered to remove the burger from the bill, as well as the wine, since Morton had just a sip.

"But I wasn't going to give him the beers," at $2.75 a pop. "I said, 'If you don't pay, I'm calling the police.' I thought he'd pay. But once he refused, what could I do?"

Actually, he could've booted Morton and barred him from future service, the way he says he has barred past unruly patrons. Or Morton could've paid his bill and never returned. And the court would've been spared the costs of adjudicating a snit.

But, no.

I'm just glad these two weren't armed with anything more than their positions. The cops arrived. Morton believes there were five but can't be certain since, having never been arrested before, "I was pretty excited." They cuffed him and did that hand-on-the-head thing as he slid into a squad car.

At the station, he was detained for 90 minutes, charged with "theft of service" and then driven back to Via Marconi to get his car.

Says Morton, "I tell my sons, 'You don't want to mess with me. I've done an hour and a half in prison!' "

His wife wanted to kill him when she heard what happened, he says. But his work buddies celebrated by papering his office with photos of McDonald's masked "Hamburglar" cartoon character - which he then had tattoed on his left bicep as a memento. It shares skin with another tatt that reads, "I pledge allegiance to the flag," in honor of the three days he volunteered at Ground Zero after 9/11.

It took a year and a half for Morton's case to wend its way through the courtroom of Towamencin Magisterial District Judge Harold Borek. He explained his eventual not-guilty verdict thusly:

Although Morton had threatened to not pay for his burger, he never got chance to act on that threat, since cops were summoned to Via Marconi before Morton's bill was ever even served to him.

A victory is a victory, I guess.

"I have no regrets," says Morton, who's pondering whether to sue Vickerman for legal fees. "But I wish I'd gotten names of witnesses and taken a picture of the hamburger, so the judge could see how little of it I ate."

As for Vickerman, he has no need to sue Morton for the $5.50 worth of beer. Business is booming at Via Marconi, and he will soon open a second pub.

Then again, the cost of the food was never the issue. Principle was. Which means they have more in common than they think.


Contact Ronnie Polaneczky at polaner@phillynews.com or 215-854-2217. Follow her on Twitter @RonniePhilly. Read her blog at philly.com/ronnieblog, or for recent columns go to philly.com/Ronnie.

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