27 March 2008

Small Claims Court: Free Entertainment

If you’re bored some morning or afternoon, I highly recommend visiting your county’s small claims court as an audience member. It’s like Judge Judy live — just as funny with just as many stupid people.

I learned this yesterday when I attended court for a case I filed against a driver who hit my car. We both have Farmers insurance. She lied to the insurance company and said I hit her car, so the insurance company decided not to find fault and assigned each of us responsibility for our own damages. After the initial decision, I asked the insurance company to assign the case to a local field office and actually look at the vehicle damage and take photographs. I am certain that fault could be determined by the points of impact.

Farmers, however, still refused to find fault. I’m thinking the decision may have been weighted by the fact that her stepfather, whose plan she is on, is a contractor and has a shitload of insurance with Farmers, so they didn’t want to piss him off.

Now, I’m not the best driver in the world. When I was 18, like the driver who hit me, I was a terrible driver. I hit everything. I stopped counting accidents at 14. And they were all my fault. My insurance was outrageous because I was high risk. My family teases me to this day about my driving record. (My driving record has since improved and I haven’t had an accident in more than 10 years.)

During those years when I was a bad driver, I never lied about my fault in an accident. Not to the cops, not to my parents, not to the insurance company. I took the tickets, the increased insurance rates, the body shop repair bills in stride and vowed to slow down and pay closer attention.

This is why I was so pissed off when the jerk who hit me lied. She had insurance; she should have just told the truth and let them handle it. Instead she lied, I took her to court, and I won. She filed a counterclaim at the last minute, but the judge dismissed it. Had she told the truth to the insurance company, they would have paid for the damage on my car, and I would have had to have get my car fixed. Now, she’s out $700 and I can use the money to buy cute shoes.

My case was probably one of the less entertaining of the day, though. My favorite was the guy who took his ex-girlfriend to court claiming she had the two vehicles that he bought. He had a notebook with him, but it didn’t have anything useful in it because when the judge asked him for bills of sale for the vehicles, he didn’t have them and said he bought them from a good friend. This is when the ex-girlfriend piped up and said that she did have the bills of sale because she bought them. The guy then tried to say he should get one of the vehicles because he did all this work on the house.

Turns out, it was his house, and the girl bought all the materials for the improvements, for which she had loads of receipts. We also learned — from the dumb guy — that she had filed a restraining order against him. He stated this four times in the courtroom. The judge found in the girl’s favor, and it was obvious to the entire courtroom that she had dumped the guy, he is violent and he filed this lawsuit because he was bitter and tried to steal one of her vehicles.

That was the only case in which the defendant won, other than the one where the plaintiff didn’t show up. A couple other cases were landlord–tenant disputes. My favorite was the one where the couple had paid their rent on time and in full three times out of almost two years. The judge had the landlord read his ledger: June 2006, rent paid late and $200 short. July 2006, rent paid late and $40 short. … November 2007, rent paid late with additional $300 for arrears. December 2007, rent paid late, $400 short.

When I was an apartment dweller, it didn’t occur to me to pay my rent late, and I certainly never would have paid less than the full amount.

The only response the couple had was to complain about the condition of the property. “It was fine when we moved in,” the guy said, “but after a few months it really started to go downhill.” So after they started living there, it went downhill. Sounds like they wrecked the place.

Maybe the judge would have listened to some of the defendants if they didn’t dress like homeless people. In my mind, people dress nice for court. Not necessarily suit and tie, but at least business casual. But these people showed up in worn-out blue jeans and faded t-shirts. My defendant showed up in calf-length leggings, a long shirt and Keds, and the judge hardly spoke to her.

To support my hypothesis, the landlord in another case didn’t win all he filed for, because, I’m convinced, the defendant wore a dress and looked very nice. Maybe I’m just too prim, though, because I don’t think wearing blue jeans to a wedding is appropriate, either, and I’ve seen it plenty of times.

My second hypothesis about small claims court is that the judge will find in favor of the plaintiff unless the plaintiff and defendant are ex-lovers, ex-friends or embittered family members. When it’s two people with no previous relationship, the judge must recognize that the defendant obviously did something to piss off the plaintiff enough to go through the hassle of filing a lawsuit. To support my hypothesis, the judge wanted to hear from the plaintiffs in most of these cases, and the defendants said very little. The exception was the embittered ex-boyfriend case, in which the judge listened to the person who was actually prepared and had evidence.

It was endless entertainment, though, and I laughed a lot. I wasn’t the only one laughing, either. I heard snickers and laughter all around me. So next time you have a day off with nothing to do, go to small claims court. It’s fantastic entertainment and it's free courtesy of your local buffoons.

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