How to Bring a Damage to Clothing Lawsuit

Damage to clothing cases are often handled differently than other property damage cases

By , J.D., New York University School of Law

Disputes involving damage to clothing are extremely common in small claims court and judges seem to apply a logic to them that they apply to no other property damage cases. The reason for this is that clothing is personal to its owner and often has little or no value to anyone else, even though it may be in good condition. It follows that if a judge strictly applied regular personal property rules (that you are limited to recovering no more than the current market value of a damaged item), plaintiffs would often get little or no compensation. Recognizing this, most judges are willing to bend the rules a little to arrive at a value for damaged clothing that is based on the item's original cost and how long it had been worn.

When suing for damage to new or almost-new clothing, it follows that you should sue for the amount you paid. If the damaged item has already been worn for some time, sue for the percentage of its original cost that reflects how much of its useful life was used up when the damage occurred. For example, if your two-year-old suit that cost $900 new was destroyed, sue for $450 if you feel the suit would have lasted another two years.

In clothing cases, most judges want answers to these questions:

  • How much did the clothing cost originally?
  • How much of its useful life had already passed at the time the damage occurred?
  • Does the damaged item still have some value to the owner, or has it been ruined?

Example 1: Wendy took her new $250 coat to Rudolph, a tailor, to have alterations made. Rudolph cut part of the back of the coat in the wrong place and ruined it. How much should Wendy sue for? The entire $250, because the coat was almost new. She could probably expect to recover close to this amount.

Example 2: The same facts as in Example 1, but the coat was two years old and had been well worn, although it was still in good condition. Here, Wendy would be wise to sue for $175 and hope to recover between $100 and $150.

Example 3: This time let's return Wendy's coat to its almost new condition but have Rudolph damage it only slightly. I would still advise Wendy to sue for the full $250. Whether she could recover that much would depend on the judge. Most would probably award her a little less on the theory that the coat retained some value. Wendy should argue that she didn't buy the coat expecting to not be able to wear it in public, and as far as she was concerned, the coat was ruined.

Here are some tips for handling a clothing case:

  • Bring the damaged clothing to court. It's hard for a tailor to say much in his or her own defense when confronted with a coat two sizes too big or featuring three sleeves.
  • Be ready to prove the original purchase price with a canceled check, newspaper ad, or credit card statement. If the item was purchased at a pricey store, let the judge know where.
  • If you only wore the damaged or destroyed item a few times, make sure the judge knows it. For example, if you paid $500 for a good-quality suit you planned to wear to work 50 to 100 times over the next three years and a dry cleaner screwed it up after just five wearings, try to get the judge to value it at close to $500.
  • Be sure that the person you are suing (tailor, cleaner, seamstress) really caused the problem. As noted in the example of the suede coat in Chapter 2, some problems that develop during cleaning or alterations may be the responsibility of the manufacturer.

Don't let the cleaners take you to the laundry! Cleaners are particularly apt to offer "proof" from "independent testing laboratories" that the damage caused to your garment during cleaning was really the fault of the manufacturer. Because these labs work almost exclusively for the dry-cleaning industry, the idea that they are independent is a joke. If you are faced with one of these reports, ask the defendant:

"How much did you pay the testing lab for the report?"

"How many times have you used the same testing lab before?"

"How did you know about the testing lab (for example, does it place ads in dry cleaners' trade journals that say, 'Let us help you win in court')?"