Although some of the most common disputes resolved in small claims court have been detailed in the preceding chapters, there are many other situations in which a person feels unfairly wronged by another, and looks to remedy the situation through mediation, arbitration, or filing a small claim. We have lumped these cases into the category of “personal disputes.” Examples of cases that may fall under this heading are:
  • A dry cleaner ruins your clothing, drapes, etc.
  • You are attacked and bitten by your neighbor’s pit bull.
  • The family across the street has teenage children who regularly throw very loud parties that substantially disturb your peace and quiet
  • You were treated rudely, perhaps to the point of harassment, by a company representative
  • You were given a black eye by an angry little league parent when you, as the coach, failed to put his son in as a pinch hitter

Unfortunately, incidents like these occur all the time, and yet do not fit neatly under the rubric of any of the categories mentioned thus far in the manual. Fortunately, however, these cases usually adhere to one general legal principle: one person suffered an injury (either personal or financial) that resulted in a monetary loss, and somebody else is directly responsible for this injury. Callers who feel as though their dispute meets these criteria may find relief through the small claims system.

To help callers feel more confident when presenting their cases, either to a clerk magistrate, a mediator, or even the other party, this chapter will discuss some of the primary legal principles on which personal dispute cases are based. The terms highlighted in italics are particularly crucial terms, and it is often helpful for a plaintiff to establish, through argument and evidence, that each of these elements were met in their particular case.

Negligence

Negligence, in short, amounts to carelessness. Legally, negligence is roughly defined as the failure of a person or persons to take precautions to prevent the occurrence of reasonably foreseeable consequences that may result from a dangerous condition on their property, or under their supervision, given that the person was aware of the dangerous condition and had ample time to correct it, yet did not.  In the case of the neighbor’s aggressive pit bull, a plaintiff who was bitten by the dog (and thus suffered some degree of monetary loss, be it time off from work, doctor’s bills, etc.) would have to show:

1. That the neighbors were aware of the fact that the pit bull was dangerous (perhaps because the plaintiff told them or because aggressiveness is common among pit bulls), and had ample time to do something to alleviate the problem.
2. That they nonetheless did not take reasonable precautions to avoid attacks on neighbors (such as building a fence, tying it to a strong leash, or watching over it).
3. That, because of their negligence, a reasonably foreseeable consequence of keeping an unrestrained pit bull (i.e. a bitten neighbor) occurred.

Usually, a plaintiff will want to establish a prima facie case of negligence, which will shift the burden of proof to the defendant. See the list of terms below for more on this.

Bailment

Bailment is the fancy word for “safekeeping,” and bailment cases fall under the subheading of “negligence.” Legally, bailment occurs when one party entrusts a piece of its property to another party, under the assumption that this piece of property will be returned in at least as good a condition as when it was surrendered.  The piece of property may be handed over either for safekeeping or for the performance of a particular service (e.g. tailoring). If the item(s) are not returned in good condition or are not returned at all, one may attempt to get compensation through small claims court. In the case of a plaintiff whose new silk shirt was ruined by a dry-cleaner, the plaintiff would want to establish a prima facie case of negligence (see list of terms below for more on this) by showing:
1.     That the dry-cleaner willingly accepted the shirt for dry-cleaning (a.k.a. “bailment occurred”). A dry cleaning ticket could serve as evidence for the dry cleaner’s willing acceptance of the shirt.
2.     That the shirt was in satisfactory condition when it was given over to the dry-cleaner. If the shirt had a stain on it, and was returned with the same stain, then it was technically returned in the same “satisfactory condition” in which it was given to the dry-cleaner. In this case, a person cannot sue for negligence, as the dry cleaner did not do additional harm to the shirt. A dry-cleaning stub (that indicates the condition of the item when it was dropped off) or a witness may help to establish the prior condition of the item.
3.     That the shirt was returned in a damaged condition (or was not returned at all). The best evidence is the actual item that was damaged.

If a plaintiff can show that his or her goods were damaged in the defendant’s possession, then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to show that he or she did take proper or adequate care of your possessions.

If the bailer (the person who was in possession of the plaintiff’s goods) did not knowingly accept responsibility for the items, then the plaintiff is not likely to win a suit against the bailer. For instance, if you mistakenly leave your purse in a restaurant, and find $40 missing from your wallet when you retrieve the purse, you cannot sue the restaurant for negligence, as it never actually “accepted” your property and promised it safekeeping. This type of bailment is called constructive bailment, and liability is difficult to prove. If, in contrast, you gave your purse to a coat-checker in a restaurant and it was returned to you with $40 missing from your wallet, liability is easier to prove – this type of bailment is called active bailment.

Nuisance

A Nuisance is created when one party intentionally engages in actions intended to harass or disturb another, and this disturbance causes the harassed party physical (and/or mental) losses.  An “illegal dunner” (who calls to request payment of a debt more often than the laws allow (see Chapter 10 of this manual)), a neighbor who throws extraordinarily loud parties every weekend, or a “stalker” who leaves a plaintiff notes and phone messages twenty times daily, may be creating a nuisance, and could be sued in small claims court (although, in the case of a stalker, a client may wish to seek additional legal restraint against this person). A plaintiff in a nuisance case would have to show:
1.     That the actions of the other party were deliberate and done with an intention to harass. This means a neighbor’s smelly garbage (that sits outside a plaintiff’s bedroom window) is only a nuisance if the neighbor is aware that he is disturbing the plaintiff and does not correct the problem.
2.     That these actions have substantially diminished his day-to-day enjoyment of life. Explaining why the actions drove the plaintiff to the point of actually filing a small claim should do the trick.
3.     That the actions of the other party were unreasonable (i.e. the benefit to the defendant was significantly less than the cost/nuisance to the plaintiff). This is important!
4.     That the plaintiff suffered a monetary loss as a result of the defendant’s behavior. Remember, a monetary loss can sometimes be alleged if one undergoes severe mental distress. See terms later in this chapter for more on mental distress.

Assault and Battery

Assault, in its legal sense, occurs when someone tries to physically harm you in a way that makes you feel immediately threatened.  You needn’t be actually punched (or hit, or kicked, etc.) to have suffered an assault. Battery occurs when someone physically contacts you with the intent to harm you.  Pointing a gun at you (assault) and then shooting you in the leg (battery), constitutes an “assault and battery”. Although assault and battery is a criminal offense, it is also a civil wrong, and thus, if the damages sustained are less than $2,000, a person can sue in small claims court.

Other Personal Dispute Cases

There are many other personal dispute cases that do not fall under any of the above categories. For more information on the below topics, see Shapiro and Striker, How You Can Sue Without Hiring a Lawyer: A Guide to Winning in Small Claims Court. The page numbers are included for reference.

Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment, p. 148.
Intentional Infliction of Mental Distress, p. 149.
Breach of Contract, p. 243-248.
Privacy, p. 259-263.

Legal Terms Relevant to Personal Disputes

In proving a personal disputes case, or refuting the counterarguments made by the other side, it is helpful to be aware of the following legal terms.

Assumption of Risk – a tactic sometimes used by defendants to explain why they are not liable for a plaintiff’s damages. For example, if a skier breaks his leg after getting his ski caught on a large chunk of ice on the slopes, and then sues the ski resort for negligence (because they did not keep the slopes in a safe condition), the ski resort may counter that the skier took on an assumption of risk when he decided to go skiing, and thus they are not to be held liable for the injury. While this argument may be persuasive to a clerk magistrate, it is explicitly discouraged by the law in certain cases.

Consequential Damages – the amount of any damages that were sustained by a plaintiff as an indirect result of the actions of the defendant.  For example, if a reckless driver crashes into a plaintiff’s car, causing it to require $1300 worth of repairs, he may also sue the driver for the $300 he had to spend on rental cars as a result of having his own car in the shop.

Disclaimer of Liability – A defendant may claim that it was made clear to the plaintiff (either on a receipt, a sign, a contract, a coat-check stub, a dry-cleaner’s stub, etc.) that he was not responsible should an item be lost or damaged while the item was in his custody. In other words, the plaintiff knew that there was some risk involved in the transaction, and yet agreed to it anyway. In some cases, this will excuse the defendant from liability. However, if the disclaimer is not posted conspicuously (i.e. in a place where the plaintiff would have been expected to see it), or is written in overly fine print, the disclaimer may be deemed invalid. In short, if the plaintiff can prove that he was made unaware of any disclaimer, he may succeed in convincing the clerk magistrate to rule in his favor.

Mental Distress – the monetary equivalent of any “mental damages” sustained by a plaintiff as a result of the actions of a defendant. There are some small claims cases in which the actual “damage” that a plaintiff incurs cannot be adequately summed up by looking only at the cost of the physical damages he sustained. For example, it may be the case that a landlord repeatedly tries to intimidate a tenant when the tenant asks him to make repairs to his rented apartment. If, as a result, the tenant subsequently suffers nightmares full of threatening landlords, he may have suffered “mental distress.” If so, the tenant could also add a sum of money to his claim for the “mental distress” caused by the landlord. More specifically, if the repairs cost $700 to do, the tenant might add $200 for the “mental distress” of those nightmares, bringing his claim to a grand total of $900. However, arguments of mental distress are rarely persuasive to clerk magistrates.

Prima Facie – fancy “legalese” that is used in negligence cases. If a plaintiff is able to prove that (1) another party took on a duty of care (i.e. a dry cleaner took responsibility for a silk shirt, or a property owner, by virtue of owning the property, took on the duty of ensuring it did not create a hazard to others), (2) he breached that duty (i.e. a dry cleaner ruined the silk shirt, or a property owner did not take reasonable precautions to ensure against reasonably foreseeable hazards on his property), (3) this breach of duty was the proximate cause (a.k.a. the direct cause) of damages to the plaintiff, and (4) a monetary value can be placed on these damages (for loss of property, doctor’s bills, pain and suffering, etc.), then a prima facie case of negligence has been established. Once this occurs, then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant, who must now explain why he should not be held liable for the damages.

Punitive Damages – Civil courts can sometimes award punitive damages – money awarded to the plaintiff that is above and beyond the direct, consequential, and/or mental damages he has sustained. However, in small claims court, plaintiffs can only sue for the amount in damages they actually sustained (plus double or triple damages, if applicable). A plaintiff CANNOT seek punitive damages in small claims court.

Reasonableness – a standard employed in many small claims cases to determine whether a party is liable for damages. For example, a clerk magistrate may conclude:

“It was reasonably foreseeable that the plaintiff’s young child would jump on the defendant’s backyard trampoline (perhaps because the plaintiff lived right next door); hence the defendant is liable for the child’s injuries.”

“The defendant took reasonable precautions to ensure against a trampoline injury (i.e. he erected a fence between the two properties, or warned the plaintiff to watch his child carefully when playing outside); hence the defendant is not liable for the child’s injuries.”

“The defendant was given a reasonable amount of time to correct the problem (i.e. it had been 6 months since the trampoline was installed, and still the defendant did not erect a fence or issue a warning to the plaintiff); hence the defendant is liable for the injuries.”

The standard of reasonableness applies in non-negligence cases too – in short, it allows the clerk magistrate some discretion in deciding whether or not a claim is legitimate. Again, the name of the game in small claims court is “common sense.” Explaining the “standard of reasonableness is a great way to respond to a caller’s question about whether or not they will win their claim.