Consumer Watch: Solve Big Hassles in Small-Claims Court
But as satisfying as it may be to imagine a particularly vile customer service rep strapped to slow-turning rotisseries or set upon by throngs of carnivorous rodents, these gruesome scenarios won't solve your problem. Reader Rick Cunnington, a mechanical engineer from Oro Valley, Arizona, tried a more civilized approach: He filed a small-claims action.
Cunnington's beef was with the credit company Experian, which had failed to correct erroneous information in his credit file. "I was getting nowhere fast," says Cunnington. "So when I filed the suit, I demanded a thousand bucks for my time, plus costs. [At the hearing] I told the judge and the Experian representative that all I really wanted was to have the misinformation removed from my file. The rep took care of it, and I was happy."
Since his trip to small-claims court, Cunnington has managed to solve disputes with Microsoft, Symantec, and Intuit with strongly worded letters. But he likes knowing that he has the option of going back to court. "I would have no compunction with doing it again."
It would be nice if all conflicts had such tidy endings. And the attractive thing about going to small-claims court is that you don't need a lawyer; in fact, most areas forbid legal representation at the proceedings. Unfortunately, getting your just deserts through legal channels usually isn't easy. The legal process involves time, expense, and aggravation, so you should use it only as a last resort. If all else fails, though, a trip to small-claims court can be the one thing that will get a negligent company's attention.
Filing a small-claims action has a number of drawbacks. For one thing, if you're butting heads with a company based in another state, filing a small-claims suit may not be worth the trouble. You must file your suit in the court that holds jurisdiction--and typically that's the court where the offending company is located.
The good news: There are plenty of exceptions to this rule. Many large companies register--that is, establish a legal presence--in states where they advertise or do a significant amount of business; and most mail-order companies are subject to small-claims actions filed in any state in which they sell merchandise.
You should consider whether a small-claims action will enable you to collect enough money to make the hassle worthwhile. On average, small-claims courts cap judgment awards at about $5000, but the figure varies. In Delaware and Georgia, you can pursue up to $15,000, while Virginians are limited to a paltry $1000. And if you're out only a hundred bucks, is it worth taking a day off from work to go to court? Visit
Also ask yourself this question before you proceed: How likely are you to be able to collect what you're owed if you win your case? If you're dealing with a disappearing dot com or a villainous vendor, you might never see the cash or goods owed you--even if the law is on your side.
And finally, if your dispute involves a product under warranty, read the fine print. Some companies include clauses that restrict your freedom to file a lawsuit. For example, by accepting Gateway's warranty on its consumer PCs, you waive your right to go to court and must instead seek redress through a neutral arbitrator.
The drawbacks of going to court may be daunting, but fortunately most disputes with reputable companies can be resolved by simpler means. Often, sending a clear, concise letter that details the situation to someone authorized to take action will help resolve your problem. So before you head to court, make every possible effort to settle the matter through the company's customer support channels. In fact, many states require documented evidence that you've tried to work things out with the defendant before you can file a small-claims action.
Let's say you've played by the rules--contacted a customer support representative, talked to that person's supervisor, and finally sent a letter to the CEO--and it's gotten you nowhere. You're ready to go to court. Now you file the proper forms (which often can be downloaded from the court's Web site), pay the fees (usually around $20), and gather your evidence.
The amount of time it takes to complete the small-claims process, from the initial filing to the judge's decision, can range from two weeks to two months, depending on the court and its caseload, the complexity of the case, and other factors. Plan on spending at least a day writing letters, gathering documents, and otherwise preparing your case. Your hearing itself will likely be brief, but waiting for it to commence could take all day.
At some point, you'll probably be asked to meet with a mediator--an impartial third party whose job is to help you and the defendant agree on a solution. Many states insist on mediation before a judge will hear a case, and most courts provide inexpensive mediation services.
Whether you're headed toward mediation or to court, Bill Tanner, directing attorney of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, California, recommends that you prepare thoroughly. Organize your evidence, prepare a concise explanation of the conflict, and decide on a concrete proposal for a settlement. "It's important to anticipate what the other side might say," he points out. "You'd be surprised at how many plaintiffs haven't really thought through the opposing viewpoint."
With a little luck, you'll never have to go to court to get a company to treat you properly. But when things go wrong--and don't get fixed--small-claims court can be just the ally you need. Make sure you know how to use it.