California Small Claims Court: An Effective Tool for Smaller Personal Injury Cases
Insurance companies are manipulating the civil justice system, and most people don’t have a clue that it’s happening.
For years insurers have complained about the alleged “frivolous lawsuits” that are clogging the system. But in reality, they are to blame for much of it in their efforts to discourage all claims no matter how fair or reasonable.
Insurance Claims Process – The Unfair Game
Insurance companies realize that they can make it so expensive to litigate a smaller case that it can be cost prohibitive. So rather than offer a reasonable settlement on cases they know deserve it, insurance companies refuse to offer anything, or will low ball claimants with offers less than the reasonable medical expenses they’ve incurred.
Many times claimants, who would have settled for just paying the medical bills or slightly more, resort to seeking counsel. Once in litigation, insurance companies have their in-house counsel grind the cases and force the claimants all the way through written discovery, depositions and ultimately trial. At that point, litigation costs usually exceed what claimants get from a jury.
This is where small claims court can be the equalizer.
Small Personal Injury Claims Advice
We get several calls per month pertaining to mild injuries suffered in car accidents. Many times they are neck or back strains that have healed with a few months of physical therapy or chiropractic treatment. These cases are just too small for our firm to handle. In fact, because of insurance companies, they are becoming too small for most attorneys to handle.
We have advised many of our clients that they will be better off filing actions in small claims court. This is where claimants can level the playing field against the biggest defendants without having to incur significant costs and attorney fees.
Heather Peters proved this recently when she took Honda to small claims court over allegations that the automaker misrepresented the fuel economy of the Honda Civic Hybrid.
Rather than participating in a class action suit that would have yielded her about $100 plus rebates toward a new car, Peters went her own way. She received an award of just under $10,000 – much more than participants in the class action case – in a California small claims court.
There are many other advantages to small claims court:
- No attorneys are allowed. Therefore, everyone is equal.
- Costs of pursuing claims are thousands of dollars less than a traditional Superior Court action.
- Cases are often heard within a couple of months, compared to more than a year for an average Superior Court case.
- Rules of evidence are relaxed. For the most part, claimants can just ‘tell their story.’
- Cases are decided by Judges, Court Commissioners or Volunteer Judges, rather than angry jurors who do not want to be on jury duty.
- The maximum award for bodily injury claims where the defendant is insured is $7,500. The maximum award for most other individual claims recently increased to $10,000.
Small claims can be very effective in personal injury cases. When litigation will be cost prohibitive, I advise the client of the pros and cons of small claims court. If they choose to go to small claims court, I often times guide them through the process and help them prepare for their hearing.
In every case I’ve helped an injured party, a reasonable award has been obtained. Often times the award is as high, or higher, than a jury would award – with much less time, money and aggravation spent. Thus, this leaves the client with more money in his or her pocket.
California Small Claims Appeals: Insurance Companies Prolonging the Litigation
Of course, reasonable, efficient awards are not good enough for insurance companies, so they appear to appeal every small claims award in favor of a claimant – no matter how fair or reasonable.
A defendant who loses a case is entitled to one appeal of a small claims matter. The appeals are heard by Superior Court judges, and attorneys are allowed in these proceedings.
An appeal is still advantageous, however, compared to full blown litigation. Appeals are usually heard within 45 days, and depending on the judge can be more informal than a traditional court trial. For a basic personal injury matter, the appeals are often completed in less than a day. Even if an attorney must be hired, it is much cheaper to do so for a small claims appeal than full litigation.
In the appropriate case, small claims court can be a very effective tool for consumers. It is a place where David can truly slay Goliath, and should be used more often.