Saturday, November 26, 2011

How to Sue a Corporation in Small Claims Court

Several years back, I sued AT&T in small claims court, and the judge ruled in my favor for $1000. My complaint was that AT&T (back then they were doing business as Pacific Bell) had never notified me, as a DSL subscriber, that I could have availed myself of a number of features of their DSL package, including a nationwide network of local dialup phone numbers, and free web hosting and 3 email addresses. I was never given notice of these parts of their package, and felt that I very much could have used those services if only I had known. I had subscribed to DSL for 2 years by the time I found out, and believed I was due some sort of credit for the services the company had failed to notify me of, and I had never used. I called the company, detailing my complaint, and asked for free DSL for a year (back then AT&T was the only game in town in terms of providing DSL service in my area). The representative I spoke to declined to give me free DSL, but offered me a discounted rate per month. Hard-head that I was back then, I decided to reject their counter-offer, and began to prepare my case. It was a lot of work, and after I had served the corporation with the suit, I even got a call from another representative, offering me 3 free months of DSL service; I decided to reject that offer and proceed with my lawsuit. In court, no one showed up to contest the charges (a corporation usually must pay a lawyer much more than a potential liability of $10,000 to represent the company in a small claims case), but that doesn't mean you automatically win. In my case, the judge wanted to hear the basis for my lawsuit, and I argued that, at the time I discovered I was due the extras that I was never notified of, given Pacific Bell's monopoly on DSL service, I couldn't have simply moved my business elsewhere if I was dissatisfied with their customer service. The phone companies that owned the infrastructure were only just beginning to lease their lines to competitors at the time I argued my case, but the judge agreed with my logic and ruled in my favor.

Flash forward to the present: last year, I was operating my motor vehicle, a Honda Accord, and discovered that the seatbelt alarm for my car was starting to flash and emit a continuous beep, even though I made sure I had my seatbelt properly secured. Now, it's important to clarify that, by seatbelt alarm, what I'm talking about is actually a warning system that has a flashing light and audible alarm, indicating my seatbelt is not secure during operation of the vehicle (hence seatbelt alarm). I told my local mechanic about the problem, and he suggested I take the car into the dealership, as what I was describing seemed to indicate a problem with the seatbelt system, and since Honda has a lifetime warranty on seatbelts, I could get the problem repaired for free. I did as my mechanic suggested, but then I got a call from the dealership repair shop that the problem I had would not be covered under warranty, as their mechanic had deemed the problem to be an electrical issue, and not a seatbelt issue, so Honda would not pay for the cost of repair. As explained to me by the dealership mechanic Chuck, for my particular model of vehicle, the seat belt system is one of the most complicated ever made. To fix the problem, which is probably a wire that is shaved or touching the body of the car somewhere, the mechanics would have to take the panels off, including the dash panels and door panels, and trace the wiring from the sensors to everything that's involved with the system to find out where a wire is touching the body of the car somewhere. So even though Honda says in their warranty booklet that "a seat belt that fails to function properly is covered for the life of the vehicle," I am apparently out of luck.

I believe Honda is being disingenuous. If the problem is electrical, it's still manifest by the seat belt alarm beeping and flashing for no apparent reason, and it was a mechanic who first suggested that the problem might fall under Honda's limited lifetime warranty for seat belts. That's why I plan to sue them. Stay tuned.
  1. Make sure your claim is not invalid under the statute of limitations: http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/small_claims/file.shtml
  2. Ascertain the proper jurisdiction. If you don't file your lawsuit papers in the proper county, your lawsuit will be dismissed by the judge. To figure out the correct jurisdiction, ask yourself, where was the agreement between you and the corporation entered into? Where was the agreement broken? When I purchased DSL from AT&T, I did so for my home in Berkeley, and I filed in the Berkeley small claims court (which has since been moved to Oakland). When I purchased my used car, I did so in Oakland, so I plan to file in Oakland at the Wiley Manuel Court.
  3. Ask the corporation for the amount of damages you are seeking, either in writing, or in person (if in person, note the date and time you do this)
  4. Find the agent of process for the corporation, at http://www.sos.ca.gov/, click on Business Entities, under 'Online Services' click on Business Search, type in the name of the corporation
  5. File the lawsuit papers in court, then notify the corporation you are suing them by serving the lawsuit papers on the agent of process
  6. Prepare to argue your case in court, making sure to organize your ideas as legal arguments, and have documentation in hand showing damages, and evidence to support your claim of damages
  7. If you win, i.e., if the judge rules in your favor and awards you damages, serve the judgment on the agent of process, so that your paperwork will be forwarded to the corporation's Accounts Payable department, where a check should be cut out to you

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