Get even in small claims court

by Jason Cisper

When it comes to a vehicular accident, there is rarely a clean-cut case of who is at fault. Even if the other party is clearly to blame, some insurance carriers will use any means necessary to avoid paying on a claim. But to the informed driver who is interested in recovering money for damages, small claims court may be the best answer.

OOIDA has assembled a booklet, "A Guide to Presenting Claims in Small Claims Court," that outlines the process.  It covers state-by-state guidelines, and gives pointers on how to deal with specifics.  The booklet is available only to OOIDA members.

OOIDA member Tom Curley of Lawrenceburg, TN, was delivering a load on interstate 495 just north of Boston last August, when a pickup truck in front of him lost a tire, and it rolled under the cab of his truck. No one was injured, but Tom's truck sustained more than $2,000 in damages.

Tom was towed nearly 1,300 miles, and sidelined during repairs. The damages were appraised, and the truck was fixed.

But when it came time for the pickup driver's insurance company (Commerce Insurance of Webster, MA) to settle, the unfathomable happened. They denied the claim.

In a letter to Tom, dated Sept. 8, 1998, Commerce Insurance stated the following:

"We do not feel it is a normal procedure to check the lug nuts of the tires before operating your vehicle each day, week, or even month due to the fact that they are designed not to come loose under normal operation," Commerce Insurance stated in the letter. "Based on the information above, our insured is not legally responsible for the accident. For this reason, we must respectfully deny your claim for damages against our insured's auto policy."

Tom was furious.

"They claimed that no prudent person checks his (wheels) on a daily basis," Tom says. "I couldn't believe it."

According to claims manager Chuck Johnston, of Commercial Truck Claims Management, such an occurrence is "pretty common." Often, he says, insurance companies will do their best to dance around a claim.

"It's a game they play, and they know the rules," he says. "Some insurance companies find loopholes and try to deny claims."

Had there been more damage done to Tom's truck, he might have enlisted the help of his own insurance carrier to recover the money. But in an instance such as this, where there is scarcely more than a few thousand dollars at stake, the insurance company isn't likely to spend more time collecting on a claim than the claim is worth to them.

Similarly, Johnston says that if the case hadn't been disputed, the state's insurance commission might have helped out in collecting Tom's money. But since Commerce Insurance insisted their insured party wasn't at fault, this was unlikely.

Tom appealed the claim and was again denied. He called upon OOIDA's business services department, and was told to file suit in small claims court. When filing, he enlisted the help of an attorney. He got his money not long after. He insists that had he not filed suit, the insurance company would not have settled.

"They were banking on the fact that because I was from out of state, I wouldn't come back to battle it," Tom says.

Johnston notes that small claims court is the best answer in resolving a dispute such as this. And he says the process can be completed without the help of an attorney.

"It's just a matter of going to the county courthouse and filing," Chuck says. "You have to pay a service of process fee, which isn't a lot of money and is recoverable in the lawsuit."

Also recoverable is the amount of time spent on the lawsuit. For example, if you have to spend three days driving to another state and back for court, you can sue for reimbursement on the three days you were unable to work.

Requirements vary from state to state, and Johnston says the best thing to do is contact the clerk in the county where the accident occurred to get specifics. In Tom's case, for example, Tom had three years to file a claim. The minimum is one year, with some states giving as many as six years under the statute of limitations.

Quite often, Johnston says, an insurance company will not even appear in court. This is particularly true in open-and-shut cases. In these instances, the judge will award a default judgment, allowing the plaintiff to seek out a method of collection on the amount owed.

Although some insurance carriers will go to great lengths to deny claims, it is still possible to collect on an accident in which you were not at fault. You can write letters and argue with claims adjusters, but in the end, your best recourse just might be in small claims court.