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Considerations

We live in an imperfect world, and people are just trying to get by as best they can. As such a certain acceptance of ‘wrong’ is required to function, and we must be flexible in our actions surrounding other people’s mistakes. Being too aggressive in legal action creates an oppressive fear that overshadows what could otherwise be a reasonably free and enjoyable everyday life. I recognize that and wish to avoid pushing things too far.

On the other hand, both large corporations and small businesses often take advantage of the obtuseness of our legal system to wrong their customers. Because of the inaccessibility of court, or more often the limited individual damages of quantity-focused scams (I’ve often been legally wronged to the tune of $5 or $10, and the business counts on it not being worth any customer’s time to fight it), ‘evil’ (for lack of a better word) thrives and spreads. Being too cautious with legal action creates a fearful consumer base that cannot comfortably interact with businesses without either substantial risk or excessive legal legwork beforehand. I recognize this and wish to avoid allowing illegal and unethical practices to spread by being overly meek.

The Question

In practical terms, at what quantitative limit will a local magistrate begin to recognize a plaintiff as overly zealous, and begin to view their claims more skeptically, possibly leading to an inability to effectively bring a case against even a serious injustice, and in such a scenario how would that bias likely manifest in practical terms?

Context

For many years I’ve wanted to learn to file small claims cases due to what I see as repeated injustices in the way many corporations are allowed to do business. I say this as someone who has owned and operated several very successful small businesses over the past few decades; I’m not naïve to the complexity of running a business and keeping customers happy. About a year and a half ago I switched jobs and finally had the free time and flexibility to try doing that.

Case 1: When I ‘finished’ my 450 sq ft basement in early 2017 I hired a contractor to apply and sand the drywall mud as I was running short on time. They quoted $1000 using my materials to be finished within one week. Every day they showed late, sometimes 4-5 hours late, and stayed as little as 1-2 hours per day. At the end of the week they had half finished one coat, used the wrong corner bead (necessitating demo before I could redo), wasted over 3x the mud they should have, spilled sugary drinks all over my subfloor, and done worse that I don't want to get into. After one more chance (another week of this) I kicked them out and they refused to return the $500 deposit. I hired another contractor for $1200 that did a great job in 3 days using his materials (so about the same overall cost). I filed with the local magistrate against the original contractor in mid 2017 and won a default judgment, then settled before the appeal in late 2017.

Case 2: When I used a new garage floor coating product in 2016 I experienced improper coverage, excessive bubbling, and other serious issues. The manufacturer paid for 50% of the materials needed for a second coat, but after application the floor still looked terrible and I could see the concrete underneath. All application instructions were followed properly, and I had video of the entire process as proof. It cost me more than I paid for the original product to fix the issue using a competing product, but had I known that I would have chosen a cheaper option to start. I filed a case in late 2017 with the local magistrate. The manufacturer filed a notice to defend, but then didn’t show up, so I received a default judgment at the end of 2017.

Case 3? I recently purchased a car from an internet retailer that delivers cars to your door with a 7-day return policy. It had one paint chip recorded and shown on their website. On arrival I found two more chips worse than the recorded one, along with numerous other issues. This is a car with 5k miles, and it was in worse condition than the car with 53k miles that I just sold. I spoke with them on the phone and they assured me that they would get it taken care of once I sent in a quote from a body shop. I sent in the quote, and they responded after the 7-day return window that they couldn’t do anything because the two chips are within their ‘quality standards’, which is logically inconsistent given that they recorded a much smaller chip. I feel like this is a blatant bait and switch, directly violating a specific warranty, and that companies cannot be allowed to do business like this without a cost.

I discussed the car issue with a friend and they are concerned that filing a 3rd case with the local magistrate within a 9 month period could cause the magistrate to view me, and thus any future cases I bring, with a biased eye. I’m curious of the validity of this concern, especially given the difficulty of winning this new case (since a defining attribute is something discussed verbally with no record).

  • The other cases were obviously legitimate, seeing as how they were adjudicated in your favor. You're using the system correctly. I'm not seeing how or why that would count against you. – cHao Jan 4 '18 at 17:14
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A person can be declared a vexatious litigant who then requires the permission of the court before filing any cases. However, a litigant who has won every case they have brought can hardly be called vexatious. So long as you are willing to pay for the court’s time you are entitled to bring as many claims as you like.

Will this cause bias against you? It shouldn’t but judges are people first and even with the best will in the world people carry acknowledged and unacknowledged biases.

However ...

Litigation is a stupid, time consuming and expensive way of resolving disputes. If you come to be seen in your community as a person who is stupid, wastes time and causes expense then other people may choose not to deal with you or charge a risk premium in their pricing for doing so.

  • I think the last paragraph could be enhanced with a qualifier, like "unless all other avenues have failed." I always try customer service, then a manager, then a different manager on another shift, then corporate, then reviews, then consumer protection agencies...but in our modern business culture that works barely half the time. Assuming it all fails, how is litigation stupid? How is it expensive compared to the hundreds or thousands of dollars 'stolen' by the instigating party? I certainly can't argue about time consuming, though... – Nicholas Jan 8 '18 at 17:36
  • @Nicholas I have run a B2B business for almost 20 years. I quite often write off tens of thousands of dollars because it is cheaper than litigating. I also act as an Ajudicator in construction disputes (which is a lot cheaper than litigation) - in every dispute I have ever decided, each party would have been better off if they had just cut a deal and kept my fee (not counting the fees they paid to their advisors and their own costs) - my fee is a tax on stupidity and pig-headedness. Be careful with words like ‘stolen’, you need to look at the dispute from both sides. – Dale M Jan 8 '18 at 21:15
  • I understand your point. However, often times one side refuses to deal. The other is left with choices to either litigate or be, from at least one perspective, ripped off (and I do look at it from both sides; like I said, I've run several successful small businesses). When you start talking about lawyer fees you're probably right that it's not economically efficient, but in small claims the cost is $50, time, and annoyance. What do you recommend as a non-stupid alternative to litigation? – Nicholas Jan 9 '18 at 0:56
  • @Nicholas walking away, learning something, getting on with your life and never dealing with that particular cheat/swindler again. – Dale M Jan 9 '18 at 1:04

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