In California, I loaned my $6000 car to someone who paid a $500 deposit. If he returned it today, according to the agreement, he would owe $1500 (so he would need to pay $800 more since he once made a $200 payment, albeit late). But, he now refuses to pay more and refuses to return the car. I am pressing criminal charges, but want to focus here on just my potential in a civil suit. Also, I understand that I am unlikely to ever get paid even if I win the civil suit, but let's not discuss that.

Then, what is the most I can reasonably sue for? My guess is that I can sue for the $6000 car (minus whatever value I can sell it for if I get it back) plus the $800 debt plus my court-related costs (maybe $500). Does California civil court have any punitive/double/treble recovery precedent? Is there a common practice in California civil courts which would allow me to sue beyond my true expenses?

He makes arrangements to pay or return the car but reneges on these actions. I could claim that he has caused me 40 extra hours of work to manage this but I don't believe I can expense my own time for a suit, so hoping instead for a more official California civil court punitive rule.

1 Answer 1

  1. You can repossess the car, with or without a court order to do so, so long as it is accomplished without a breach of the peace. If the car is never returned, you have $6,000 of damages for conversion of the car and probably punitive damages for theft of the car.

  2. You can sue for the money damages you experienced from breach of contract (which looks like $800), you would also get court costs if you prevailed ($500 per your question) but not attorneys' fees unless you had a contract that provided for them (you should have had an agreement in writing that said you get your attorneys' fees if you have to collect or take legal action to get the car back). You are correct that you can't sue for your own time (at least as a non-lawyer).

  3. You can add damages for the lost rental value of the car during the time that it was detained and the out of pocket costs you incurred repossessing the car, and for any damages to the car (e.g. cost of getting it cleaned, paint fixes from his actions, etc.) Find market quotations from low end car rental places as proof, or use the contract rate for the planned duration of the loan (probably better described as a short term lease).

  4. I am surprised that the prosecutor would pursue this criminally, because that would be unusual. If you wait for a conviction, the civil suit would be much cheaper and easier because the conviction proves liability (although not damages) in the civil suit. There also might be a restitution award in a criminal suit and if there was that wouldn't be dischargeable in bankruptcy.

  5. Intentional breach of contract is not fraud and hence usually doesn't give rise to punitive damages (which would be a thousand or two dollars at more) unless you could should an intent not to perform when the contract was entered into, and the fact that at least one payment of $200 was made really undermines that theory. But, detaining the car after the lease period expires could be a form of conversion or theft. In Colorado, we have a civil theft statute that allows for treble damages and attorneys' fees if you prevail, but I'm not sure that California has a comparable law, but some sort of exemplary damages are probably available if he stole the car in the end and never returned it.

  6. Don't worry too much about collection. Judgments remain valid for a long time. Even if he doesn't have money now, he may someday get a job from which you can garnish his wages, or a bank account that you can garnish, or buy real estate that can be subjected to a judgment lien, if he doesn't file for bankruptcy first (which lots of people don't). You can also refer the judgment to a collection agency which screws up his credit.

I'm more upset about this guy's lack of respect for agreements and people than about not being paid. Most people who realize they can't afford a car would be respectful and simply return the car, but this guy has no shame and has repeatedly wasted my time (and a friend's time) with his deception. He says he will pay on a specific day, or return the car on a specific day to a specific place, but then usually ghosts at the critical time with some fake excuse coming a day late.

The Court system is not a place where you get respect or apologies or emotional compensation (not available in contract cases or cases just involving property).

Suing for the "principle" is a fool's errand unless you have a "strategic" interest as a repeat market participant that you won't let things slide to give you negotiating credibility in the future, even though pursuing individual cases actually makes you lose money. You sound like a one time occasional participant in this market, so this doesn't apply to you.

Instead, your goal should be to optimize your monetary recovery from this one transaction and then to move on. Consider it a cheap lesson learned. Many people learn similar lessons at a much higher price. A decent written contract written by a California lawyer could have made this ordeal much more favorable to you in court.

  • @bobuhito "do you think I could get fraud-like punitive damages because he promised to return the car on ten separate occasions and then ghosted." Absolutely not. There is no way that this would support punitive damages. This isn't fraud. This is failure to keep a promise made at the outset. The later promises were not supported by any consideration so breaching them would not be fraud either. The only way you'd get punitive damages is from showing an intent never to return the car (i.e. that he just plain old stole the car). I don't know what burden of proof would apply in CA on these issues.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 27, 2018 at 8:12

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