Companies routinely take advantage of customers because they think they can get away with it. But the small claims court offers an avenue of recourse that gives you a relatively swift and easy way of settling disputes, and getting the money you deserve. Here’s reader Jason’s true story, from start to finish, of how he was able to get a subcontractor to live up to their agreement to fix a receiver the subcontractor’s work had shorted out:
“In February of 2007 my wife and I moved into our newly built home. We had issues with one of the subcontractors. The issue is really a moot point here but if you really want to know the low-voltage company messed up the wiring of our in-the-ceiling speakers and it shorted out my surround sound receiver.”
(I’m not a lawyer and I cannot offer legal advice…only tell my experience. I tried to keep this as general as possible to help others while keeping the specifics of my case and plan to win out of it)
“Over the next two weeks I was going back and forth with the builder and the subcontractor. Finally the subcontractor agreed to repair/replace the receiver. The VP of the builder played mediator and agreed to the agreement. This was about two weeks after the problem initially happened.
Fast forward to the beginning of May when I finally give the receiver to the subcontractor for repair. I made sure to have the person picking it up sign a hand receipt noting the model and serial number of my receiver and the details of the agreement.
For the next few months I didn’t really think much about the whole mess and in all honesty just the thought of dealing with the low-voltage company put me in a tizzy. Finally around November I called them and asked the status of my receiver. They said that they did not repair it since it was too expensive to repair and they were not going to replace it because it was not their fault.
I once again contacted the builder and they offered no help. Around this time I read an article on the Consumerist [The Ultimate Consumerist Guide To Fighting Back (Revised Edition)] where they listed the legal route. That told me exactly what I should do since I tried the nice and the hardball route.
I spent about an hour or so researching small claims court policy in my state and local jurisdiction (in my case the county). My local county had a great handbook about the whole process and I downloaded this and read it to find out the idiosyncrasies of my local court. I also scoured the webpage to find anything else to use in my favor. The one interesting tidbit that I found was that in my county if you take a corporation to court seeking an amount of damages over a certain amount (in my case $1500) they would have to have representation by an attorney. Under $1500 and any full-time employee could represent them.
What I figured is that at a couple hundred dollars an hour that it would not be worth the company to go to trial with an attorney. Plus, I figured that if they show up to court without an attorney then I would just seek default judgment. I was going to seek about $1600 in damages (cost of the speakers, cost of the receiver, and cost of 6 months free monitoring that I was promised).
The next day I went to the county court house to file my case. The county clerk gave me a one page form where I wrote down my information, the information of the company I wanted to take to court, and I had about a paragraph to explain my case. I also had the option of submitting evidence/contracts at this time but I did not do that for a couple of reasons.
My reasoning was that this isn’t a criminal trial and you don’t have to file evidence ahead of time for the defense to see. I wanted to blindside the company with as much evidence that I could when I got in front of the judge. Remember, in small claims it’s not beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s only a preponderance of the evidence.
I paid $85 to file and have the papers delivered to the company via the county sheriff. I paid an extra $10 for that service and figured that it was worth it for shock value. One interesting thing is that you have to have a true street address and not a PO Box like this company had. I eventually found their address by doing a whois lookup of their domain name. I also set a court date at this time.
A couple of days later they were served the paperwork and immediately the owner called me and left a voicemail. I tried to return her call numerous times over the next week and she never called back so I decided that I would let the court decide.
Eventually our court date came around and I went to court dressed in my best lawyer garb armed with all my evidence (in my case contracts showing the price we paid for the speakers, the hand receipt signed by the company employee, e-mails, phone records, the owner’s manual of the receiver, receipts, and pricing of a replacement receiver). I was the first case called before the judge and I was told that the defendant was in a car accident and is in the hospital. I was given a new court date. I still don’t believe that the lady was in an accident but that isn’t for me to decide.
As the next month went by I didn’t hear anything from the company but suddenly about two weeks before the new trial they called me. We exchanged a couple of calls and finally we agreed upon a settlement. I ended up getting the cost of a new receiver and court costs paid in addition to six months of free alarm monitoring. Total value of what I received $920. Less than I was seeking but still agreeable to me to be done with the whole mess.
I agreed to dismiss my case and turned in the paperwork to put a rest to this ordeal.
The entire small claims court process was pretty sweet in my opinion. The system was easy to use and offers a good venue to settle disputes. I have no doubt that I would have won my case but I guess that I’ll never know.
Here is the time breakdown from the time I decided to go to small claims court:
Initial research – 1 hour
Court filing – 1 hour
Collection of my evidence – 1 hour
First court date – 2 hours
Phone calls leading to settlement – 1 hour
Collection of settlement – 1 hour
Filing of settlement – 1 hour
TOTAL: 8 hours for $920.
I will definitely use the small claims court process again if I have problems with a company.
Inspired? here’s some posts we did on how to take a company to small claims court. They may seem invulnerable, but suing big companies in small claims court is actually fun and easy. Daunted? Here’s the steps you need to take to take your case to small claims court. Finally, a state-by-state index of links to small claims court papers and brochures.