Friday, August 27, 2010

Small Claims Court

I came out of work at Stanford University to discover that my motorcycle had a flat tire. I summoned Danny, my husband at the time, who appeared on his own motorcycle with one of those kits for patching bicycle tires. Motorcycles don't carry spares.

He cobbled the tire together. We knew it wouldn't hold; but after a heart-in-mouth drive down the peninsula on El Camino Real we arrived at Santa Clara Motor Sports, the local BMW motorcycle dealership. As we knew, they weren't open. We left the bike there and called them the next day about the tire and some other minor things it needed.

A week or so later they wanted $300-odd for their efforts. That's in 1974 dollars. We paid up -- what else could we do? -- and then sued them in Small Claims Court. Their head honcho threatened a countersuit. Danny wasn't impressed. I was sure the guy would sue, and that he would win and ruin us. I can't imagine what he would have had against us that he could have made a case of; but at the time I knew nothing about things legal and, as always, assumed the worst. He didn't, of course, have any kind of a case, and he didn't sue.

Danny is a bulldog. He went over every item in the bill, asked questions of motorcycle shops and the local BMW car dealership, even managed to get samples of the kind of seals Santa Clara Motor Sports should have installed instead of the ones they had in fact used. When the time came, we were by far the best-prepared litigants in the courtroom.

We had always been suspicious of the Santa Clara Motor Sports guy, a middle- aged man with a bald head, a skin-deep smile, a habitual demeanor that was meant to express sincerity and didn't, and a talent for running up bills. We took the bike to him because we hadn't been in the neighborhood long and didn't yet know about Rich Davis in San Jose; but that's another story.

When we saw Mr. Motor Sports outside the courtroom that morning, he wasn't smiling. His phony sincerity had given way to what I think was supposed to be an air of quiet menace. He was still bald.

Small Claims Court was an interesting experience. It seemed to be Finance Company Day -- or maybe there are finance companies in court every day. (Do finance companies still exist, or are they deservedly illegal?) One hapless Filipina in a white hospital uniform had been hauled in over a loan she had co-signed for a friend and her boyfriend so they could buy furniture. The payments had not been made and the friend and boyfriend had disappeared, as had the furniture.

The finance company showed minimal interest in their whereabouts. With a solvent victim in their net, they weren't about to concern themselves with the beneficiaries of the furniture.

"Why did you sign this loan?" the judge asked the defendant.

"Because she was my friend." "You know that I have to enforce this?"


Then the judge turned to the woman representing the finance company. I have the impression that judges can get as tired of finance companies as of divorcing fathers who don't want to support their kids.

"I'm continuing this case for two weeks. By that time, I want to see a real effort made to find these people."

I think it was the same finance company lady who had a guy in court for a couple of missed payments. He admitted that he was behind: he'd been sick, or lost his job, or something. He was trying to be conscientious amid his difficulties but didn't think he had missed as many payments as she said.

The judge asked her a few times what the exact amount in dispute was. She went on about the March payment and the April payment and the May payment but seemed unclear on the total.

"How can I issue a judgment if you don't even know how much you're suing for?" asked the judge in exasperation. "Case dismissed!"

When our case came up, dead last, our friend with the bald head tried to make much of the fact that the bike had been found lying on its side, presumably indicating carelessness on our part. The judge accepted our contention that the flattening tire had caused it to tip over. He was impressed enough, particularly by the seals, to award us a small rebate.

Danny was ticked off that it wasn't more. I was content to get anything, and not to be successfully countersued. I pointed out that we had had an interesting experience, which I had to suspect was not novel or interesting to the defendant; and if nothing else, we had tied him up all morning and prevented him from ripping off anyone else.