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
For those not familiar with small claims court, I want to explain a few things about it. Small claims court is usually for cases involving claims of less than $5,000. A benefit of small claims court is that you do not need a lawyer, even though having one is great, as it is simplified to expedite cases.
With small claims, there are two types of warrants. The first is Warrant in Debt which is when the plaintiff (the one suing) is trying to get money from the defendant such as when you are seeking to be reimbursed due to negligence on the defendant’s part. The second is Warrant in Detinue which is for recovering your property from another person. As you probably guessed, we used a warrant in debt for our case.
When you file the lawsuit you have to get all the required information on the other party. We had to find the registered agent for the shop and the corresponding address. Don’t think you can file in small claims during your lunch break; it takes a bit of time. The good news for us was the helpful staff at the court. They walked us step by step with paperwork.
We didn’t want to go into looking unprepared, so we took the time to get everything ready to present the best case we could. We certainly had some time as the shop’s lawyer requested a continuance.
Here are some tips that helped us and hopefully it can give you a place to start.
- Keep track of everything. Have a writing pad with you at all times and write down any and all conversations that you’ve had regarding the case, whether it’s in person or on the phone. Take pictures of anything related. Keep notes on the time and names of persons you spoke to. When you appear at court, this is extremely helpful.
- Have paperwork organized. I cannot emphasize this enough. Have all your paperwork ready is crucial. You’ll be nervous when in court, so having everything organized, preferably a notebook, is great. Keep all the originals and make copies of everything related to the case.
- Gather witnesses or experts if you can. Witnesses that can provide firsthand information on a case are extremely useful. We didn’t have any witnesses, so we asked our mechanic that repaired the problem to assist us. We were grateful that he accepted.
- Consult with a lawyer if possible. Unfortunately our case was too small for a lawyer to take on. I took advantage of my status as a college student and asked a professor who was an attorney for advice on the case.
Small Claims Court: Presenting and Winning Our Case
Nervous as we were, we knew that we could win our case if we did what we practiced. We observed some common mistakes with other cases that we did our best to avoid.
- Assume you’re entitled to win. I was surprised with how arrogant some plaintiffs were. They honestly believe that they deserved to win, even if they presented a flimsy case. Cases are decided on merit, not emotion. Give the judge facts and reasons why you should win the case.
- Being unprepared. Others had the facts, but did not have evidence to back it up. Lacking proof, it’s really a case of he said/she said, which rarely works out for the plaintiff.
When our case was called, we gathered our notes and we did our best to present our case as clearly and logically as we could.
Our main arguments in our case hinged on two facts:
- The auto shop never called us when the work was done. If they did, we could’ve picked it up before the rain. We had proof of this because we checked, reviewed, and bought our phone records. We also presented a copy of our work order which specifically stated they would call us when the work was completed.
- The auto shop should have never taken our car completely off their property onto a city street. There were no other cars scheduled for repairs, so there really wasn’t a reason to move it off the site. The shop itself was well elevated so keeping it there would’ve prevented all this water and electrical damage.
Both of these actions were completely in their control and both were clearly their responsibility. We also called our new mechanic to explain the cause of the damage and how easy it would’ve been for them to diagnose the problem. He also helped point out how the auto shop’s lawyer’s arguments and assumptions were incorrect.
After presenting all of our receipts and records that we had, we were awarded all our money back minus a day for our car rental (we couldn’t find that receipt). We went to the lawyer’s office a few weeks later to collect our check and sign the remaining paperwork. While I’m happy it worked out in our favor, it still was a headache. Sometimes, though, you have to use small claims court to get justice.
Thoughts on the Case
Do you want to know what bothers me the most? This could have been fixed for under $150 if the mechanic fixed it right away. We definitely did the right thing by fighting for our money and making the shop take responsibility for their actions.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on handling matters through small claims court. How did you prepare? What did you find difficult?