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September 13, 2013

STAWAR: Very small claims court

— Last week, my wife Diane and I went to small claims court for the first time in almost 20 years.

The hearing was scheduled to take place far from where we live, but it was postponed because the other party had not been properly notified. I can’t talk about our case because it is still in litigation. Actually, I could tell you everything, but it sounds more dramatic this way.

The last time we were in court was in Florida, when we bought a house, only to discover minutes after the closing that the roof leaked. The sellers concealed this from us and the home inspector and had even strategically placed photographs to hide holes where water ran down the wall when it rained.

The court required us to go to mediation first, where we encountered a kindly older gentleman who urged us to “split the difference” regarding the repair costs. Diane was adamant and said, “It wasn’t the money, but the principle of the thing.” She said we intended to pursue the case as far as we had to in order to get satisfaction. The sellers just shook their heads, like we were crazy, and said to the mediator, “See what we are dealing with?”

We won the judgment, although the judge let them make monthly payments. In a passive-aggressive act, they misspelled our name on every check they sent. I told Diane that it would have been better if we could have beaten it out of them.    

I believe that small claims court is a great American institution. Not only do you get your day in court, you also get to pretend you’re a lawyer. After watching Perry Mason and Matlock all of our lives, this is something many of us have always wanted to do.

 According to the Indiana Judicial Center, “The Small Claims Court allows every citizen to bring a lawsuit in an informal manner and does not require that a party hire an attorney.”

It was intended to provide Hoosiers with “a speedy, reasonably inexpensive, uncomplicated means” to settle claims. In Indiana, small claims are those less than $6,000  and you can usually file an action for less than $100. Small claims are heard by either the circuit or superior courts in most counties.

The Indiana Small Claims Court Taskforce indicated that 276,295 new claims were filed in 2010 and 282,006 claims were disposed. About a third of the cases were dismissed, another third were settled by default and the remainder were decided by the judge.

The National Center for State Courts reports that about 40 percent of small claims cases are consumer complaints and more than two-thirds of the time individuals suing businesses win their cases. Getting a judgment, however, is only half the battle.

Brian Petrone, who operates a judgment enforcement business in New Jersey and Florida, asserts that, “Eighty percent of all judgments aren’t collected.”

Some people believe that the easy accessibility of small claims courts only encourages frivolous lawsuits, but I disagree. I even propose going a step further and establish an  extension of the process — a “Very Small Claims Court” — to handle those day-to-day disputes that we constantly encounter.

Below is an example of a what such a docket might look like.

1. Material loss: This case involves compensation for a loss incurred when the supermarket failed to place one of our plastic shopping bags in our cart.

When we got home we were horrified to discover that the bag containing two jars of jelly and a container of sour cream was missing. The grocery store had one of those rotating plastic bag devices that just invite slip-ups. Besides compensation for lost items, the suit includes damages caused by having to eat a taco salad with old, partially frozen sour cream.

2. Personal injury: This is a suit against our 10-year-old granddaughter, who in a moment of willful negligence, slammed the car door on my finger.

There were extenuating circumstances. She was excited because we were rushing to ride the giant Ferris wheel at Myrtle Beach’s boardwalk. I actually had to open the car door to remove my finger. Since she has no job, I will have to garnish her allowance. There is little point in getting a lien against her personal property, since it is almost entirely pink and covered with peace symbols.

3. Conical discrimination: Diane and I occasionally patronize a local ice cream shop in the summer. As a symbolic gesture toward reducing my carbohydrate intake, I recently switched from a cone to a cup of frozen yogurt.

All scoops are not, however, created equal. The cone had significantly more yogurt in it than the cup. This is an open and shut case of discrimination. Not only do cone-eaters get to partake of the tasty cone, they unfairly get more frozen yogurt to boot.

4. Product liability: A couple of months ago we bought a kitchen tablecloth, on sale at a local store. Unlike the other tablecloths we’ve had in the past, this one constantly slides off the table.

If I am sitting down at the table and I so much as put the slightest pressure on the area in front of me, the whole tablecloth comes sliding toward me. I realize that I am making the cloth move, but it’s so sensitive I can’t even detect my own movements. All this has become incredibly distracting at meal time and I think the store should take responsibility for this defective product.

5. Pet owner negligence: Many lawsuits involve pets. For some reason, when our grown children visit us, they insist on bringing along their pets.

I personally don’t care, but visiting animals disturb Klaus, our cat. Klaus scratched our granddog’s eye on one occasion and once when we were dog-sitting for a friend, he kept stalking our little visitor like he was prey, making everyone quite nervous.

Last year, our oldest son brought a very large dog with him when he visited. Klaus was out in our screened-in porch when he caught sight of the huge dog coming right at him. Due to the size of his adversary, Klaus was less feisty than usual and immediately ran right through a screened-in window and up the nearest tree. Fortunately, only Klaus’ dignity was hurt, in addition to our screen.

6. Product defect: During a recent car trip, we stopped at a store and I bought some bacon jerky in a resealable pouch. As luck would have it, this package was totally incapable of being resealed, thus exposing the jerky to potentially dangerous microbes and to the possibility of drying out. This sealing failure is very common, according to Diane, so perhaps a class action suit is in order.

7. Breach of breeches: Diane has informed me that she is considering pursuing an action against me for breach of promise. It’s true that I may have fallen down on the job after I had agreed to always check my pockets before putting my pants in the laundry.

I made my promise following a number of disasters involving ink pens, mental screws, rusty nails, coins, tissue paper and other paraphernalia. For this one, I may have to throw myself upon the mercy of the court.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Check out his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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