Reader Sues Subcontractor In Small Claims Court, Wins Settlement

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.

-Jason”

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.

Comments

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  1. spartan789 says:

    Come on Ben. Open your html tags correctly.

  2. timmus says:

    Hear hear…. if only I had a nickel for every time I read about someone threatening to get satisfaction from the BBB. Yeah, right. Thumbs up to this person for putting their money where their mouth is and recounting the small claims experience.

  3. FLConsumer says:

    What crappy audio equipment can’t properly handle a short circuit at the output terminals?!?!?

    I’m not excusing the contractor/homebuilder for shoddy workmanship (esp. for however much they probably raped the OP for to pull wire), but good audio equipment should be able to safely handle a shorted output by either shutting down or adjusting down its output stages to prevent any permanent damage.

  4. DeeJayQueue says:

    Ok, so for that $920 can you repair/replace what you lost? What about recovering your out of pocket expenses for the paperwork filing and whatnot? did you take that out of your settlement?

    If it were me, and I’d already gone to all the trouble to set up court dates and had them bail on one already, after they already broke my stuff and had it for a couple months and didn’t fix it, I’d have taken them all the way to court. What you did was show them that money talks. Sometimes principles matter too, and companies like this need to have their nose bloodied in court to teach them a lesson.

    I may be wrong, but I believe there are records that get kept when you actually go to court against a company, and if the company loses, that will show up. People who do background checks on companies before patronizing them will find this court record and see what kind of business they do. They may choose not to take their business there, because they feel like that company aren’t good at doing business, or customer service. Call that not fair if you want to, but if the company is actually, you know, not good at doing business or customer service then people deserve to know about it. Keep your nose clean and run an honorable business and you won’t have to worry about things like that.

  5. Eric1285 says:

    Way to go. I see myself going down this road as well in the future, what with the sorry state of customer service.

  6. rhombopteryx says:

    Unless your state has a law, or your contractor got you to sign an agreement, that contractor disputes must be arbitrated…

  7. LikeYourFace says:

    @FLConsumer: Way to miss the frakin’ point, jackass. “Oh! I have an opinion related only peripherally to the topic, but it shows I’m smarter than someone who actually took charge of a bad situation for a positive result!”

  8. 8 hours for $920? i thought the op said he lost $1600. after all the prep you did (and showed up for court once previously) i would have gone all the way.

  9. martyz says:

    Very inspiring — way to use the “WHOIS” lookup for the address!! Good call!!

  10. Maude Buttons says:

    @FLConsumer: Finally — someone willing to discuss the real, hidden issue and not what was posted. Your close reading skills are much valued. Clearly, this post should have been about the speakers, and not about a consumer using his small claims court.

  11. shadow735 says:

    sweet thanks for the info, it is filed for future use, if needed

  12. headon says:

    Can I take FLCONSUMER to small brains court. (oops that was a Fraudian slip)

  13. godawgs7 says:

    I’m interested in suing a company that sent a spam email to my phone (a violation is $500). However, they are out of state. Does anyone know what sort of trouble I have to go through to sue an out of state company?

    I can’t find any info on the GA websites.

    Also, how effective is sending a letter to the company laying our your case asking for a settlement? Is it better to just file first and deal w/ a settlement after that?

  14. matt1978 says:

    @FLConsumer: YOMP YOMP FLOOSH MONCH I KNOWS ALLS BOUTS THE RADIOS YUSG GUH BUH
    ISA BES SMARTERS THAN YOUS

  15. donnie5 says:

    @godawgs7:
    You can sue out of state, they have to be able to send a rep to the state in which they violated the laws. Remember, you have to send the summons to their address.even if out of state.

  16. billin says:

    I may be wrong, but… I’m not feeling a lot of love for FLCONSUMER. *:)

    I have to say that I found this story inspiring. If only I’d read about it and Consumerist’s article before I had my basement done… But, c’est la vie.

    Kudos to Jason for standing up!

  17. AD8BC says:

    I had difficulties once with a medical provider who seemed to never be able to file our health insurance claims correctly. Turned out that our insurance paid them in full but they still billed me for a co-pay… got turned over to a collection agency. So I paid the collection agency and wrote a demand letter to the provider stating they had 30 days, I would file suit in small claims, etc… and I included all copies of my evidence (labeled Exhibit 1, Exhibit 2, etc.) They did not respond. so one month later I offered them a courtesy extension, noted there would be no further time extensions, etc. and I got the phone call from someone who bothered to check out my account. Not only did they pay me the full amount but they also refunded my postage costs for certified mail and other postage, and they fired a few people.

  18. JiminyChristmas says:

    One word of caution: Obtaining a judgment is one thing, collecting it is an entirely separate matter. It can be an incredibly huge hassle, which could result in the plaintiff having to make additional filings in court in order to force payment.

    Another thing worth mentioning: many states have contractor recovery funds from which people can seek compensation for contractor fraud or non-performance. Especially if your claim were above the limits of small claims court it would be an avenue worth taking.

  19. Fait Accompli says:

    For all those saying “his damages were $1,600 but only got $900,” remember that he was not guaranteed anything if he went to trial. Also, even if he won, he was not guaranteed to get the total $1,600. People often overestimate what damages are recoverable in court. All in all, I think this was handled very well, and the settlement was likely a smart cost/benefit decision.

  20. GrandizerGo says:

    @pepe the king prawn:
    In Mass, if you have an agreement and the person / corporation defaults, you can sue for treble damages.
    I did this once when the car repair place refused to refund part of the cost of repairing my car because they didn’t replace the bumper with a new unit as specified, but a refurbed unit.
    They sent a rep to the court house, lost the judgement and was ordered to pay with in 14 working days.
    On the 15th day, they were in default, I filed with the court and one treble damages.

  21. mir777 says:

    Also, part of the reason he pled 1600 was to ensure that the defendant had to be represented by an attorney. His claim was based on a reasonable estimate of his damages and wasn’t out of line – at least it appeared to me.

    To the person who said he should’ve gone ‘all the way to court’ – this is the way the legal system routinely works. It’s not TV court. The vast, vast majority of cases settle, whether criminal or civil (discovery can be required pretrial in either by the way). Even if it requires convening a jury, trading evidence, or any other intermediate steps. Collecting a judgment can be difficult and time consuming. Having a settlement reached by agreement results in you being much more likely to get paid (it feels as if there is compromise on both sides) and you can’t help but value that.

    Nice job, and thanks for telling your story!

  22. mrmysterious says:

    Ok, this was my little story so I can shed light on some of the questions that people are having.

    @FLCONSUMER
    I didn’t want to get into the specifics of my exact case on here because that isn’t important. I’m not at trial here. I wanted to share the experience with the consumerist reader not the evidence. If you must know the crappy audio equipment was an Onkyo 7.1 receiver. When it smoked and refused to turn on for more than 1 second I bought a Sony 6.1 receiver. This went into protect mode when hooked up to the speakers. I don’t know what was wrong with the speakers but during this whole process when everything just started the company sent a rep out who restripped and rewired all the room volume controls. They also could have adjusted the little ohm switch in the volume controls. It wasn’t simply in the wall speakers it was a multiroom speaker setup with seperate volume controls for each room.

    @The Question why didn’t I take this to completion?
    It’s like the end of a football game. You are behind 21-20 and the ball is on your opponents 3 yard line. You can kick a field goal and win 23-21 or you can try to score a touchdown and win 26-23. Either way you still win but the likelihood of kicking a field goal and winning by a little is a lot better than trying to score a TD and winning by a lot. I took the easiest solution and when the company said they would cut me a check I told them that I would be over in 30 minutes…after which I drove to the bank and cashed that.

    @DEEJAYQUEUE
    I did recover my court costs. This company already had a bad rep with the BBB and the vast majority of their business is with the builders in the area. They are the low bidder on the subcontracted work and I doubt that the builder that is trying to maximize profits cares about one or two judgments against the sub. Plus if you read my letter you can see that I had them pay my court costs.

    @Everyone Else

    Thanks for the support. I hope none of you have to follow my lead but if you have to don’t hesitate about using small claims court.

  23. MotherFury says:

    @mir777:

    Yes, it is difficult to collection judgments! Judge Judy doesn’t tell you that… Truth of the matter is (in most states) if you win in small claims court, it’s up to *you* to collect on the judgment – the court just gives you the authority to do so.

    Would be nice if there were a following story to this about how to collect judgments.

  24. raskolnik says:

    Kudos…this is what small-claims court is for. I’m all about people taking companies to court in this fashion (and I’m in law school looking at specializing in consumer law, so not like I wouldn’t love the business down the road). It sounds like the author’s state laws are in the consumer’s favor, which isn’t always the case. In my state small claims court cases can be removed to a higher level, which then requires more formal courtroom procedures. Absent this, any small claims judgment can be appealed as well.

    I know of a landlord in my area who removes any and all cases brought against him in small claims court, in which case it’s not usually economically feasible for the person suing him (they’d spend more on a lawyer than they’d be getting back).

  25. Munsoned says:

    As for collection: I wonder if it’s possible to put a lien on the contractor’s assets, just like they do to homeowners that don’t pay their bills? Wouldn’t that be ironic?

  26. barty says:

    @godawgs7: You’d have to sue them in the state their business is in, unless they have an office here in Georgia. You COULD file in your home county, but then its up to you to figure how to properly serve them with a summons to court.

    @raskolnik: Fortunately our state’s small claims system requires anything filed in small claims to stay in small claims, just to keep people who have attorneys on retainer from moving the case to the state superior court and leaving people empty handed or facing thousands in legal fees to settle a relatively minor dispute.

    My question about this particular situation was, shouldn’t the sub be bonded? If their work could be shown to be the cause of the problem, why didn’t they just file a claim against their insurance for the replacement cost instead of giving you a run around? Or are these guys just that clueless as to why they have a bad rep with the BBB?

  27. Sherryness says:

    Off-topic: I adore the artwork for this story. On-topic: It’s ridiculous that it’s come to the point where someone has to spend 8 hours to get back the $920 she was ripped off. Kudos for her for doing it, though.

  28. kbarrett says:

    JIMINYCHRISTMAS and MOTHERFURY:

    Garnishment for information. You file one with the court you got the judgment from, and have a process server deliver the copy to the target.

    They get hauled in front of the judge, and get to explain why they didn’t pay, and you get to ask them where they bank, what property they own, and then get to put liens on these. You also ask if they have any other bank accounts or assets.

    If they lie, and say no, you do another writ, show the judge evidence of their perjury, and life suddenly gets very hard for these assholes.

    A judgment is a good excuse to completely screw up someone continuously … you get to mess with them until you get bored, or until they finally pay.

  29. CSchnack says:

    Yes, the person who said you can’t sue if there’s an arbitration clause is right. Those clauses should be avoided like the plague. Arbitrators do repeat business with the industry and there’s too much chance for bias. It can also be expensive.

    I’ve been through a construction defect case with damages well over $100,000, (that I managed to recover). I WISH I’d have been able to just go to small claims!

    That said, there are some assumptions about the legal system get consumers in trouble.

    One is that you can take a case all the way to court based on principle, or that settling isn’t “taking it all the way.” Sure, you CAN spend more and go to civil court, if you have lots of time and money and don’t mind the risk. Real court is also much more formal, and takes far more than a few hours of research to do it right. Self representation in real court is not recommended.

    FLCONSUMER did go all the way IMO because he recovered quite a bit of money and avoided spending more to fight his case. Settling isn’t selling out. It’s reality.

    But, FLCONSUMER said he didn’t list his evidence because it wasn’t a criminal case and he wanted to ambush them. Actually, most if not all civil courts also require disclosure of evidence, witness list, etc. Maybe his small claims court is different but in “real” court, it’s under the state and federal rules of civil procedure, under “discovery.” They don’t allow “ambush” anymore.

    RE contractor recovery funds: the homeowner would’ve still had to get a court or arbitration award to collect on the fund most likely.

    GODAWGS7 asked about suing an out of state co for illegally spamming his phone. While I don’t know a lot about “anti spam laws,” or “do not call laws,” if you’re going to sue someone out of state, a “long arm statute” allows you to if they did business or had contact in your state.

  30. savdavid says:

    My Mom did this on a contractor that ripped her off. She won but it did her little good. They said they would pay her in installments which the court approved. They paid one small installment and never pay any of the rest. She was told by the court clerk she would have to go back to court and sue again to get the rest. Many companies know how to rip us off, even in small claims court. My Mom did not have the money or energy (she is 86) to keep going to court. She felt let down by the court system.

  31. CSchnack says:

    Yes, SAVDAVID, this is how it often turns out, and contractors know the legal system better than they know construction. It would have come out no better in arbitration, as one still has to collect thru the courts if the contractor won’t pay a judgment/award. It’s easy to see why lawyers usually refuse to take these cases; it’s just too much work for too little money in their minds. Contractors know that, too. I also have an elderly mom who’s vulnerable to scams and doesn’t have the energy to stand up for herself. It’s no wonder seniors are targeted.

    A person would have to learn the applicable creditor’s recourse, such as attaching assets, garnishment, etc. As a winner in a case, you are a creditor. Another problem is that the contractor may live lavishly and own many companies, but the company that owes you is “broke,” or he folded it. The courts often won’t let you go after his other companies, or him personally.

    It’s a wonder tort reform ever got any foothold, given that the real life scenario for anyone trying to get justice is quite differeent from tort reform’s claim that it’s too easy to sue, and everyone collects huge undeserved awards. Perhaps if everyone in the country had had to sue a contractor, tort reform propaganda would never have fooled so many.

  32. surfphoto says:

    I also sought judgment against a contractor but agreed to settle out of court. Now my problem is actually getting them to come through with their settlement.

    Once the case is “dismissed without prejudice” there is little recourse. In my case it looks like it was just another blow-off tactic by my contractor. I will probably be taking him back to court in the near future to try and enforce the settlement. I will be taking it the whole way through the proceedings this time.

    Oh, and FWIW, in PA small claims court we are still allowed to “ambush” – we don’t have to present evidence until the trial is started.

  33. FLConsumer says:

    @mrmysterious: Thanks for the info. I don’t use consumer gear often, but it does come up from time to time. Onkyo used to be considered good gear. Looks like they’ve chosen to “value engineer” their products rather than invest in quality. It certainly will influence what I spec out from now on.

  34. FilthyHarry says:

    My uncle had a house built in a rural area recently and when it was done there were some problems that were blatantly due to the contractor not living up to contractual obligations. I asked my uncle (who is a lawyer by the way) why he didn’t sue. He said in the long term it wasn’t worth it, since if he did sue, he could forget about hiring another contractor in the area again, since his name and addr. would certainly be flagged amongst all the local contractors.

    Messed up eh? “Hold us responsible for our failings and you’ll never be served again! Hahahaha!”