Winning Our Case in Small Claims Court

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

Comments

  1. Money Beagle says:

    That’s a fantastic step by step walk through of the process. I enjoyed reading it, especially the fact that you ended up getting the money back for the repairs.

    I’m sure the hassle of the whole thing wasn’t worth it but at least justice was served!

  2. Great article. Thorough, organized, rational. No wonder you won the case.

    In California, the maximum small claim is $7500.

  3. This story is really the exception and not the norm. Most people who sue in small claims court never see a dime. That the defendant’s attorney was cutting you a check within weeks of the hearing is almost unheard of (by the way – did the attorney really participate in the hearing?? in most states that is not permitted). Normally, successful small claims litigants are left registering their judgments and trying to collect, which is a whole other process. Collecting often takes years and sometimes never happens.

    Kudos to you for your success, but don’t be deceived into thinking it is this easy. More people go through the same level of preparation but never see a dime.

  4. how do you know the shop had no other cars scheduled for repairs? sorry if missed it…

  5. One thing to keep in mind with small claims is the winning in court in NO way guarantees you will be paid by the defendant.

    I have been awarded over 700 in small claims (a situation similar to yours, but with a national chain-type of a garage). After the award, they simply refused to pay.

    The court can’t make them pay. The court marshal wrote them a letter stating that they have to pay, and they still refuse. The court cannot do anything about it.

    Had I payed by check, I would have had their bank. IF you have their bank name, then the court can sent the bank a letter and the bank will be obligated to withdraw funds from their bank account. But I payed by credit card and so don’t have their bank name.

    Another option is to pay the Sheriff’s departments and they will send in a Sheriff who will do what’s called a “till tap” where they empty the business’ cash registers and turn the money to you.

    The problem is, this place has almost no cash on hand. Most transactions are on credit.

    I am out of legal options in my county (re collecting the money).

    The lesson is the winning in small claims does not guarantee that you will get your money.

  6. Good question Tom – the mechanic made an off hand comment that it was a slow week plus it came out during the court case.

  7. FANTASTIC STORY! I don’t get how some people operate their businesses. This guy lost a customer and had to pay for an attorney! I mean come on.

  8. I am surprised you got paid that easily. I got sued many years ago over $80 and lost because I never showed up for court. I NEVER paid the person a dime so they pretty much wasted the cost of filing.

  9. Awesome story! Thanks for sharing. I’m curious about one thing though:

    You say ” He also helped point out how the auto shop’s lawyer’s arguments and assumptions were incorrect.”

    What were the auto-shop’s lawyer’s arguments and assumptions? How did they attempt to defend themselves against your claim?

    Thanks!

  10. “He also helped point out how the auto shop’s lawyer’s arguments and assumptions were incorrect.”

    Could you explain more about that.

    Also it sounds like you got him into a conference call. I’m curious how the small claims works, are you sitting infront of the judge in a courtroom or in a conference table.

    Fantastic read! Best Regards

  11. That’s a great story Elle. All of my previous knowledge about small claims court came from the few episodes of “Judge Judy” so your article was very enlightening. Thanks again!

  12. Fantastic!

    I love to hear stories about the little guy winning!

  13. I am curious to know why you didn’t sue them for an entirely new car. Isn’t flood damage something that goes on the title of the car and can cost you when it comes time to sell the car – as the next buyer will not pay the same for your car as a car that was not damaged in a flood?

  14. Please (PLEASE!) do us all a favor – if you are a member of Angie’s List, file the report there as well for other list members in your community to see as they evaluate their choices for automotive repair.

    Shops change hands, new owners, different mechanics, etc. I have experienced that as well – where a trusted shop went from one generation to the next and their service and ethical standards plummeted. Sad when it happens, but when it does happen, we need to let others know. Conversely, when we get good service, we need to reward those businesses as well.

  15. Ted Valentine says:

    How much was the judgement? How much were your expenses? How much time was involved?

  16. FYI, Judge Judy and all the other TV judges are NOT in real courts. Think about how Mills Lane went from being the boxing ref in the Mike Tyson matches to a “judge”.

    All those TV “judges” do is binding arbitration, where the parties agree to be held to the terms that the arbiter (in this case, Judge Judy) decides to do.

    Real Judges can be bombastic, but practically all the TV ones have no sense of decorum.

    And also, there is nothing preventing a person to file a lawsuit outside of small claims court without a lawyer (filing “pro se”). The judgment amount you’re seeking in a lawsuit does not limit your ability to self-represent yourself in any court of law (but the claim amount would limit which courts you could file your case in).

    I’m sure though that small claims is easier to do since the system is designed mostly for non-attorneys.

  17. Sorry, I disagree with the verdict.

  18. I hate that they didn’t want to take responsibility even though it was clearly their fault. Also the fact that you had a relationship with them makes it even worse. You definitely did the right thing. Now let’s hope they honor the judgment!

  19. Well, I TOTALLY agree with the verdict and I’m really glad you got your money. There have been a couple of times I’ve wanted to take businesses to small claims, but I know it’s quite a hassle. Congrats on winning one for the little guy!
    Thanks to YS for explaining “till tap”. There have been times (a real piece of crap dry cleaner) where I would have gladly paid the Sheriff’s department more than my settlement just to make a point.

  20. What a great story!

    I could not imagine the troubles and frustrations you guys had to go through simply because of someone’s lack of common sense and sense of responsibility. Yet glad to know that you have won the case.

    Thanks again for the great story!

  21. vijaianand says:

    First of all, Congrats on winning the lawsuit. That doesn’t happen often according to me. I can imagine the feeling of arguing in the court yourself. I been to eviction filings for my rental property and even tried traffic ticket on the court. It is not easy and you are not in control so you have fear of losing all the time. I really commend you for taking the choice to file the suit and win it and write about it.

    I actually want to take on my prevous tenant to Small court for rental payments but not sure small claims court can help me. Let me if they can. They owe me 2 months rent and i had to evict them. I even tried to get collection agency but amount is low enough for them to try it.

    Anyway, great tips and ideas to prepare for the suit which will come in handy.

    Keep writing.

    Vijai

  22. Thanks everyone for the support!

    @YS: I’m surprised about that. I didn’t know that could happen with court cases.

    @Emily: Apparently the owner of the business did not inform the lawyer of the details. I was surprised that they brought it a witness that was not present when my husband picked up the car. They brought in another cashier from a different shift.

    @smith: It was in a courtroom with all of us in front of a judge.

    @Tom M: Based on conversation we had with a lawyer, it would’ve been much, mucher harder to do. Our car was old, so it wasn’t a huge incentive to go for that. It would’ve been nice to get a new car. :)

  23. You go, girl!!

  24. re: Those who don’t get paid after a judgment:

    1. Find or locate any and all assets the plaintiff may have – use Google and the county clerks office, old checks, etc.
    2. Go to court and get a lien filed against those assets. If liquid, the manager will usually pay right away, if real property, the owners can’t sell it until they release the lien – i.e. pay you WITH INTEREST.
    3. If they are individuals with jobs, ask for a contempt of court cite – the plaintiffs will usually pay up versus going to jail. If they are total dirtbags that you can’t find then it’s usually not worth your time, but anyone else who has to pay the bills becomes very reasonable when faced with a bench warrant for contempt.

  25. Thanks Hank.

    In my case, it is a company that has been located in the same building for over 30 years.

    They are not planning on moving out anytime soon. If I place a lien on it (and I am planning on doing it), I might not see payment for another 30 years or never if they never decide to sell the building.

    Agh, I just wish they weren’t such dirt-bags about it.

  26. YS – If you place a lien on real property, you don’t have to wait until the property is sold. You can foreclose. Trust me, that will get their attention. If in fact they own the property, slap a lien on before it’s too late. Real property liens are usually the best way to get paid, and fast. Results and processes vary by state.

    Failing that, check your court rules and see what the process is for calling a debtor’s examination. Just google it for more details. Certainly they have a bank account somewhere. You can learn that in a debtor’s exam.

    If it’s a substantial amount of money, hire a collection attorney to do this for you. If, as a you say, it’s a national chain that is the judgment debtor, you can get them to pay.

  27. Your comments about organized paperwork and records are right on. In the past I had to represent my employer in court many times and it was accurate records, emails, and signatures that made a huge difference.

  28. I am going through a similar situation and have a case on June 30. I feel that I am very prepared and am bringing witnesses and photos of the damage they caused. Wish me luck!!

  29. I lost a small claims case. Judgement made against me dismissed without costs. the net judgement cost of $10500 was made in favour of plaintiff. I don’t have all the funds, I can only pay plaintiff $5000 now. what are my options…please help

  30. Mr. Saelee says:

    I had my car done at crown Honda for a timing belt and water pump change. It’s been a yr and a half now. I put a little over 9 k on it. On wed while driving to Sacramento for a family visit, my car dies. I try cranking it, it would not turn over. We had to push it to a nearby shop. The next day the shop found the problem. They discover a bolt which was lodge on the bottom of my cam gear and the belt had been grinding it. The timing belt was half way shredded down to where it could not crank over. Luckily it did not break, or else we could have been into a big accident and my car would have been totaled. I had the shop that we push to put a new belt on. Cost was 280$. All the time we were down there we lost time with family because of the repair. Long story short we drove the car back to Redding(270 miles) my home. Now the issue comes down to can I sue Honda and win this case. I have the worn down belt, the bolt, pictures that the shop took, and the receipt from the shop that repair my belt. On the receipt the owner put the detail what they found inside of my timing gear compartment. I want to take this to small claims court since the Honda dealership is only willing to pay me the 280$ for the reimbursement. I want to get the 280 and the labor that the Honda shop did(480$) because they were being negligent and the work that they did was not right. Dropping the bolt almost destroy my engine and put my life and my girlfriends life in danger. Let me know what is your feedback. Thank you!

  31. @Saelee:

    If you sue, the mechanic will need to testify that fixed your car. You cannot testify as to what he said or determined and his written statements and receipts are not admissible because you cannot cross examine a piece of a paper.

  32. @Saelee:

    How would you prove in court that the dealership was the ones that dropped the bolt in there? It’s been 1.5 years and for all the court cares, you could have had the belt replaced 20 times since and someone else dropped the bolt into the timing gear compartment.

    Take the 280 they’re willing to give you and be happy.

  33. I am surprised they offered anything at all – take the $280 and consider yourself very lucky to have a dealership willing to work this hard to keep you happy.

    If they offered nothing, I would have suggested going over them to the Honda zone rep. The Honda zone reps take this stuff very seriously and have been known to help customers in situations like this (with proper proof, similar to what you have) and turn around and beat on the dealer shops.

    Take the $280 and be happy. What ifs and could’ve happens don’t work in court.

    (BTW, $280 for a timing belt on anything is a great price … hell, the $480 for the belt and pump by the Honda dealership is amazing, compared to Twin Cities (MN) mechanics prices).

  34. Delores Turner says:

    Great information. I have filed a claim against A Plus Transmission after catching them lying about parts put on my car and doing work I told them not to do, then charging me. I was fortunate to have kept every receipt and even a copy of a sketch that the tech had done to show me how the work would be done. I also have a recording that they are not aware of in which he admitted to doing work that I told them not to do. Do you think this recording will be acceptable in Small Claims Court? My thinking is that they will lie about it at the hearing and the recording can THEN be used to prove perjury. They have tried to have the case dismissed as frivolous and that makes me even more thankful that I kept every single receipt. That has proven to be a life-saver. Also I have photos showing that they left the seal off my transmission pan which could have be fatal for my transmission.

  35. I too have had success with a small claims win.. mechanic dropped an used engine in my car due to timing belt . after 1 week of the used engine it started ticking and I repeatedly phoned and complained. when I would take it back he would say it was motor mounts, put lukes oil in it and when it conintinued to tick he blamed it on giving the engine time to absorb the oil. The 30 day warranty was about to expire and he still was making excuses. he dropped my transmission and re welded it , (I found out by a surprise visit I made) otherwise I do not believe he would have told me. he also dropped my hood of my car and damaged it. I also kept phone records, tablet of every time I spoke with him time and dates and what was said, I still owed him 400 on the bill and was told by an employee to not finish paying until he fixed my car . My warranty on the used engine was aabout to expire in 5 days and I phoned him again , he told me to take it to my mechanic and pay him the 400.00 I owed him to fix it. So I did and it cost me 1,943.00 I took him to small claims and I had the mechanic whom dropped another engine in take pictures of the bad engine and where the bad mechanic welded the transmission and he gave me the parts which he took off . I brought them to court with me and won my case. I have court again for him to show cause why he should not be in contempt of court. we will take his tow truck he owns free and clear and sell it at sheriff auction. he has been given enough time to contact me, to appeal it and he has done nothing so now his tow truck is going up for auction to pay me. I agree …. keep all records and pictures ,, ask for your old parts back. when you present it in small claims , tell the story thru pictures, records and phone logs, easily accessed thru your carrier on line. I had all the proof that I had tried in good faith to get him to fix it properly.

  36. This is probably completely different but has to do with a shady mechanic that we ran into.

    Our truck was stolen in May, a day before our sons 7th birthday and recovered a couple of days after. The trucks body was still in perfect shape but the custom stereo had been ripped out, steering column busted, door locks busted and the rest of the dash destroyed and one speaker punched. Dvd player was gone but the head rests/ screens were still there.

    We had it towed from impound to a mechanic (a “friends” who was part owner in the shop). They told us that we could leave the truck there until we could fix it, knowing it would take us awhile because the transmission case had also been split in half. I have messages stating that we would not have to pay for storage fees and because we were friends with the other owner, it was no big deal.

    A few weeks later, our truck was hit in their parking lot. When I confronted them about it, they pushed our truck onto the public street where it sat for two months (my family went through more than one tragedy within a few months including being homeless) because we were unable to tow it right away. After it was pushed to the street, I received a message stating that its on the street, you may want to come and get it soon. I couldnt so we watched it and it never moved.

    Just three weeks ago as of 10-5-2013, the shop owner started pushing it on and off of his lot (according to a nearby tow truck company and the shop next door). Yesterday, the 4th, we were finally able to get our truck towed off of the public street. We checked on the truck and it was still in the street. We got our plates to put on our new truck since this one would be in a storage unit for awhile. When our tow truck got there 2 hours after we called (he was in the next city), the shop had seen us at the truck and pushed our truck BACK onto his lot and would not let the tow truck tow it. The shop owner stated we owed him for storage fees for 15 days. Later in the day that changed and we then owed 1000 dollars. He is now holding our truck hostage and the police told the tow truck driver to leave.

    According to an atty I called, he has stolen our truck. When he pushed it on the street and told us to pick it up, he wiped his hands of any responsibility of that truck. He had done NO work on the truck, but parts had been removed. The local police knew the truck was on the side of the road and other businesses knew of our truck being there and not having moved for that long. When we finally were able to get the truck, he decided to try to swindle money even though I have every conversation stating we did not owe anything that had anything to do with storage fees.

    I was told by the atty that I am allowed to go onto the lot to get my truck as long as nothing gets damaged such as a fence, or chain, etc. He has blocked the truck in with a vehicle in front of and behind it.

    We have all of our proof showing we dont owe what he has made up. We have photos and proof that it was on the public street and that we were told it was on the street after being pushed there (and to pick it up).

    Now the owner is trying to put a lien against our truck……..that he has stolen and is holding hostage.

    We were advised to try to speak with the chief of police to have the vehicle seized, have the truck reported stolen again and press charges.

    This is a criminal case not a civil matter according to all of the attys spoken with because he has basically stolen it.

    I am just passing information along for anyone who may be going through a similar situation and what we were told to do by an atty.

    If the chief of police doesnt work, we will move forward with the atty and the news channels will be contacted as well.

    The shop owner had no reason/ rights or whatever you want to call it to touch that vehicle after it was placed on the public street and told to be picked up. It was out of his hands and no longer his responsibility. He gave up anything such as fees even if we had signed an agreement, which no agreements were signed at all for anything.

    The shop owner is now trying to swindle a free H2 Hummer from us, but he will not get away with it. We have all of our proof and the case should be cut and dry as far as proof and theft by him.

    I hope to see him in jail soon or with some type of punishment. It is wrong and disgusting.

    I hope if anyone has mishaps arise that they can be blessed with people in their lives that will help them right away so that something like this does not happen to them.

    This has been an awful ordeal for my family of 4 and we just pray that everything works out in our favor (of course). Good luck everyone.

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