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Legal VIEW

Settle Some Problems in Small Claims Court

July 24, 1986|JEFFREY S. KLEIN

Imagine a courtroom where lawyers are not allowed. People argue their cases by themselves, and the judge decides disputes based more on fairness than legal rules of evidence or procedure.

Small Claims Court (known as "The People's Court" long before the hit television show of that name) is a division of the Municipal Court designed to do just that.

Not Expensive

Suing in Small Claims Court is not expensive (it only costs $6 to file), and it's not complicated (you don't have to file legal briefs), but it's not for everybody.

First, you have to have a valid legal claim. Next, you have to have somebody to sue--the defendant--who has the money to pay the judgment if you win. Finally, you have to be willing to spend the time to prepare your case, present it in court, and--sometimes the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the process--collect the judgment from an uncooperative defendant.

Small Claims Court is an effective place to resolve many legal squabbles--from the store that won't fix a defective vacuum cleaner to the car mechanic who broke your muffler while changing your tire.

You don't have to be a U.S. citizen to file a small-claims suit, but you do have to be at least 18 years old. (Parents may file as guardians on behalf of their children.) Interestingly enough, a study several years ago revealed that three-fifths of the suits in Small Claims Court were filed by businesses.

The maximum recovery is $1,500. If your dispute is worth more than that, you can still sue in Small Claims Court, but you waive your right to ever collect more than the $1,500 maximum.

Before Filing Suit

Before you sue, send the potential defendant a letter explaining how you think you have been injured and what you expect to be paid for the damage.

For instance, one reader recently left his car at a repair shop. While it was there, expensive alloy hubcaps were stolen. The repair shop refused to pay for the loss, citing a disclaimer printed on the worksheet.

Before the car owner goes to Small Claims Court, he should send the repair shop a letter explaining that the loss occurred while the car was in their care, state how much the hubcaps are worth and demand payment. (At most, he'll probably only be able to collect the fair market value of the hubcaps, not their replacement value.)

You should always be willing to consider settlement. If the repair shop is willing to pay you something, even though it's less than what you think you deserve, you may want to accept it after you consider the time and effort it will take to sue.

If you decide to sue, it is important to find the correct legal name of the defendant, especially if it is a corporation. Otherwise, it will be much more difficult to collect. A shop may bill itself as "Jack's Fix-It Shop," but be owned by a company or partnership. All businesses must file a "Fictitious Name Statement" with the county clerk that explains the ownership of the business.

One of the advantages of Small Claims Court is knowing that an objective third party--the judge--will decide the case and then it will be over. (Well, not always; the defendant does have the right to appeal to the Superior Court but the plaintiff does not.) You may feel you are absolutely right, that what your neighbor, former live-in lover or friend did was wrong, if not illegal. They may feel just as strongly. Rather than having the dispute simmer, let someone else who is not emotionally involved decide the issue in a neutral forum and then move on to other things.

The small-claims judge has a difficult chore. Cases are heard by municipal court judges, commissioners and volunteer lawyers who serve as judges pro tem . Using common sense, their own experiences, and--quite often--very little law, they decide the case. And all too frequently, it is one person's word against another's.

That's why it is so crucial to try and bring some neutral, objective evidence, either in the form of documents or a witness to testify.

Deciding these cases is sometimes similar to what a parent "has to do in deciding which of two teen-age kids to believe," explains Santa Monica Municipal Court Judge Laurence D. Rubin, who has heard small-claims cases as both a judge and volunteer lawyer.

"People are so wrapped up in their case that they unintentionally color their presentation," Rubin says. So the judge must evaluate credibility by asking who was in the best position to see something, who has photographs or documents that support his or her recollection, or who has a witness to support their version of the facts.

Surprisingly, many people come to court without any documents or witnesses, not even the estimates to show their loss. Some courts will accept signed written statements from witnesses, but a live witness is most helpful. You can subpoena a witness to appear in a small-claims action (ask the court clerk for the proper forms) and some will testify voluntarily. There are even night courts in many areas to make it convenient for your witnesses.

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