It is a rare small claims session that does not include at least one fender bender. Unfortunately, these cases are often badly prepared and presented, with the result that the judge commonly makes a decision at least partially by guesswork.
File personal injury cases in formal court. Unless it's very minor, personal injuries don't belong in small claims court, as they will involve claims for far more money than the small claims maximum. And in states that have no-fault insurance, personal injury cases may not be allowed in court at all unless you've first complied with the requirements of your state's no-fault insurance law.
The average vehicle accident case that ends up in small claims court doesn't involve personal injury but is about damage to one or both parties' vehicles. Many are extremely hard fought because so often both drivers in an accident are convinced the other was at fault.
To recover in a vehicle accident case, you have to prove either that the other person was negligent (careless) and you were driving safely or, if both of you were negligent, that you were less so. Normally, dealing with concepts of negligence in a vehicle accident is a matter of common sense; you probably have a fairly good idea of the rules of the road and whether you or the other driver was at fault. One key is whether you or the other party was cited for breaking a law having to do with highway safety. When a safety-related law is broken, negligence is usually presumed.
Check rules in no-fault states. States with no-fault insurance laws generally require that auto accident disputes–especially those involving less serious injuries–be submitted to the no-fault administrative system, not to the court. Check your state's rules.
You can still win, or at least partially win, a case involving negligence even if you were not completely in the right. Under the doctrine known as comparative negligence, if the other person was significantly more at fault than you were, you may still have a good case.
Who Can Sue Whom?
The owner of a vehicle is the person who should file a claim for damage done to the vehicle, even if that person wasn't driving when the accident occurred. The lawsuit should be brought against the negligent driver and–if the driver is not also the vehicle's owner–against the registered owner as well. To find out who owns a car, contact the state Department of Motor Vehicles. As long as you can tell them the license number, they can tell you the registered owner.
Was There a Witness?
Because the judge has no way of knowing what happened unless one or more people tell the story, a good witness can make or break your case. It is better to have a disinterested witness than a close friend or family member, but any witness is far better than none. If the other person is likely to have a witness who supports his or her point of view (even though it's wrong) and you have none, you will have to work extra hard to develop other evidence. If you can't get your eyewitness to show up in court voluntarily, try to get that person to give you a written statement of what he or she saw, and present that as evidence.
Police Accident Reports
When you have an accident and believe the other person was more at fault than you were, it is almost always wise to immediately call the police so that a police report can be prepared. (In some areas, however, accident reports are only prepared if someone claims to be injured.) A police report is admissible as evidence in small claims court. The theory is that an officer investigating the circumstances of the accident at the scene is in a better position to establish the truth of what happened than is any other third party. So, if an accident report was made, buy a copy for a few dollars from the police station. If it supports you, bring it to court. If it doesn't, be prepared to refute what it says. This can best be done with the testimony of an eyewitness. If both an eyewitness and a police report are against you, you might want to rethink the idea of a lawsuit.
The general rules of negligence apply to motor vehicle cases. Most cases are based on a claim that a driver was negligent (careless), which resulted in damage to the other person's vehicle. To win, you must show that the damabge to your vehicle was caused by the other person's negligent behavior. Negligence can also be determined by showing that the other driver caused the accident (in whole or in part) as a result of safety-related violations of driving laws. For instance, if Tommy runs a red light (prohibited by driving laws) and hits a car crossing the intersection, Tommy is presumed to be negligent unless he can offer a sufficient excuse for his action. On the other hand, if Tommy is driving without his seatbelt (also prohibited) and has an accident, the seatbelt violation cannot be said to have caused the accident and therefore can't be used to presume negligence.
If there is a police report, the reporting officer will have noted any driving law violations that occurred during the accident. The report may even conclude that a driving violation caused the accident. Obviously, if the police cited the other driver, this is terrific evidence that you'll want to show to the judge. If there is no police report, you may wish to do a little research on your own. Your state's vehicle code is available online on Nolo's website, in most large public libraries, and in all law libraries. You can use its index to review dozens of driving rules that may have been violated by the other driver. If you discover any violations that can fairly be said to have contributed to the accident, call them to the attention of the judge.
Beware! Professional drivers have an incentive to bend the truth. Be particularly on your guard when you are opposing a bus or truck driver. Many of these people risk job-related consequences if they are found to be at fault in an accident. As a result, they often deny fault automatically. Judges usually know this and are often unsympathetic when a bus driver says that there has never been a time when he didn't "look both ways twice and count to ten" before pulling out from a bus stop. Still, it never hurts to ask the driver in court whether there is any demerit system or other penalty at his or her work for being at fault in an accident.
Diagrams and Photos
With the exception of witnesses and police accident reports, the most effective tool in presenting an accident case is a good diagram. Many good cases have been lost because the judge never properly visualized what happened, and several iffy cases won because plaintiffs made persuasive drawings. All courtrooms have blackboards, and it is an excellent idea to draw a diagram of what happened as part of your presentation. If you are nervous about your ability to do this, prepare your diagram in advance and bring it to court. Use crayons or magic markers and draw on a large piece of paper about three feet square. Do a good job with attention to detail. When it's your turn to speak, ask the judge for permission to display your drawing (this will be easy if you have attached it to a piece of cardboard or similar stiff surface).
For example, suppose you're involved in an intersection accident–you collide with another car coming from the right. You'd want to draw the intersecting streets, showing the lane separators and any stop signs or signals, and use arrows to indicate the lines of travel. Draw any obstructions, such as trees and other vehicles.
Photographs can sometimes be helpful in auto accident cases. This is especially true if they back up your story about how an accident occurred. For example, if you claim that you were sideswiped while you were parked, a photo showing a long series of scratches down the side of your car is likely to be convincing. Assuming they help you tell a convincing story, it can also be effective to show the judge pictures of the defendant's car and the scene of the accident.
Whenever you attempt to recover money for damage done to your vehicle, it is important to show the judge several estimates for the cost of repairs. Three is usually a good number. If you have already had the work done, bring your canceled check or receipt from the repair shop along with the other estimates. Be sure to get your estimates from reputable shops. If, for some reason, you get an estimate from someone you later think isn't competent, simply ignore it and get another. You have no legal responsibility to get your car fixed by anyone suggested to you by the person who caused the damage. Indeed, common sense often dictates that you don't. Unfortunately, you can't recover money from the other party to cover the time you put in to get estimates, take your car to the repair shop, or appear in court.
In addition to damage to your car, you can also recover money for the fair market value of anything in your car that was destroyed. You must be prepared to establish both the fact of the damage and the dollar amount of the loss. You can also recover money for the cost of alternate transportation while your car is disabled. However, a judge will usually only allow car rental fees for the minimum period of time it reasonably should have taken to get your car fixed. Thus, if it normally would take two days to get a fender fixed, you would only be entitled to reimbursement for renting a car for that time, not the days it took for an overworked body shop to get around to it.
Defendants should be on their guard against plaintiffs who try to pad their repair bill. Sometimes, plaintiffs will try to fix existing damage to their car as part of getting legitimate accident work done. If you think the plaintiff is asking for too much money, try to develop evidence to support your belief. For example, if you can present evidence that the plaintiff's car was already damaged at the time of your accident, but that the plaintiff is suing you for 100% of all repair costs, the judge should award less–maybe a lot less–than the amount he or she is demanding. Also, remember that the plaintiff is only entitled to get repairs worth up to the total value of the car before the accident. If the car was worth only $1,500 and the repairs would cost $2,500, the plaintiff is only entitled to $1,500.
As in almost every other type of small claims court case, you should write a letter to your opponent, with an eye to the judge reading it, that proposes settlement.
A Sample Case
Here's how a motor vehicle accident case can be presented in court:
Clerk: "Next case, McClatchy v. Rugg. Please come forward."
Judge: "Please tell me what happened, Ms. McClatchy."
Sandy McClatchy: "Good morning. This dispute involves an auto accident that occurred at Rose and Sacramento Streets on the afternoon of August 15, 20xx. I was coming uphill on Rose (that's east) and stopped at the corner. There is a four-way stop sign at the corner. I turned right, or south, on Sacramento Street, and as I was doing so, Mr. Rugg ran the stop sign on Sacramento and crashed into my front fender. Your Honor, may I use the blackboard to make a quick diagram?"
Judge: "Please do, I was about to ask you if you would."
Sandy McClatchy: (makes a drawing as suggested in "Diagrams," above, points out the movement of the cars in detail, and answers several questions from the judge): "Your Honor, before I sit down, I would like to give you several items of evidence. First, I have a copy of the police accident report from the Eugene police, which states that Mr. Rugg got a citation for failing to stop at the stop sign in question. Second, I have some photos that show the damage to the front fender of my car. Third, I have my letter to Mr. Rugg trying without success to settle this case. Finally, I have several estimates as to the cost of repairing the damage to my car. As you can see from my canceled check, I took the lowest one (hands copies of each piece of evidence to bailiff to give to judge)."
Judge: "Thank you, Ms. McClatchy. Now, Mr. Rugg, it's your turn."
R. Rigsby Rugg: "Your Honor, my case rests on one basic fact. Ms. McClatchy was negligent because she made a wide turn into Sacramento Street. Instead of going from the right-hand lane of Rose to the right-hand or outside lane on Sacramento Street, she turned into the center lane on Sacramento Street. (Mr. Rugg moves to the blackboard and points out what he says happened.) Now it might be true that I made a rolling stop at the corner. You know, I really stopped, but maybe not quite all the way–but I never would have hit anybody if she had kept to her own side of the road. Also, your Honor, I would like to say this–she darted out; she has one of those little foreign cars and instead of easing out slow like I do with my Lincoln, she jumped out like a rabbit being chased by a red fox."
Judge: "Do you have anything else to say, Ms. McClatchy?"
Sandy McClatchy: "I am not going to even try to argue about whether Mr. Rugg can be rolling and stopped at the same time. I think the policeman who cited him answered that question. I want to answer his point about my turning into the center lane on Sacramento Street, instead of the inside lane. It is true that, after stopping, I had to make a slightly wider turn than usual. If you will look again at the diagram I drew, you will see that a car was parked almost to the corner of Sacramento and Rose on Sacramento. To get around this car, I had to drive a little farther into Sacramento before starting my turn than would have been necessary otherwise. I didn't turn into the center lane, but as I made the turn, my outside fender crossed into the center lane slightly. This is when Mr. Rugg hit me. I feel that since I had the right of way and I had to do what I did to make the turn, I wasn't negligent."
Judge: "Thank you both–you will get my decision in the mail."
(The judge decided in favor of Sandy McClatchy and awarded her $612 plus service of process and filing costs.)