I am SO glad I did this.
If you’ve ever been in an accident that wasn’t your fault or discovered your vehicle broken into, you know the feeling. It’s fight or flight and you’re not going anywhere. Adrenaline courses through your veins, your pulse quickens and your blood pressure rises. Your breathing gets shallow. Every nerve in your body goes on high alert. It’s like being in a knife fight at the edge of a cliff.
The more time passes after the incident, the more these feelings fade, eventually going away completely. I remember the morning I walked out to my 1997 Talon, in maybe 1998, finding the driver’s window punched out, my subs, amp, deck, radar detector, Oakelys, and even fog lights stolen. Doesn’t affect me in the slightest today.
Compare that to when I walked outside earlier this year to find some lowlife shitheel used screwdrivers to rip apart the drip rails on Rocinante, then slid my roof rack along the entire length of my roof and stole it. That still pisses me off, but nowhere near as much as it did that morning.
The difference is closure. When someone breaks into your vehicle, there’s really nothing you can do about it – and you know it. The odds of finding the culprit(s) and/or getting anything back are slim-to-none. It’s fairly final. Time passes and the rage subsides, until there’s none left.
GET READY FOR A FIGHT. A FIGHT THAT’S COMIN’.
Back to that special, post-incident feeling, imagine feeling it almost daily for 2 years. You see, the kid who hit my truck literally lives right around the corner from me. There is no way for me to leave or return to my home without seeing his house and/or his car parked out front. Every. Single. Day. I can’t tell you how many nights I spent lying awake thinking about taking him to court. I lost a lot of sleep over this.
I needed that closure. It wasn’t about winning or losing so much as it was about not just giving up and letting some lying piece of shit get away with it. It was like channeling all those past injustices – every stolen car stereo and roof rack – into a single case. This mother fucker STOLE something from me and he will NOT get away with it. Even if the judge didn’t award me a cent, I would know I exhausted every option and at least made him a little uncomfortable in the process.
The morning of my court date, I gave myself plenty of time, perhaps too much. I actually ended up driving half an hour out of Phoenix past the courthouse that morning, flipped a u-turn, and still got to court an hour early. That adrenaline-riddled fight-or-flight mode I mentioned a minute ago? Yeah. I sat outside the courtroom for an hour ready for that fight.
I PRESENTED MY CASE
After the judge was settled behind the bench, he called us into the courtroom. It was nothing like any of those Law and Order episodes I’d seen over the years, just two small tables for plaintiff and defendant and a single row of chairs right up against the wall directly behind us. The judge explained what would happen.
Anyone here ever been to small claims court before? No? Okay. Everyone take a deep breath and relax. It’s pretty straight-forward. First, we’ll get everyone sworn in. Then, the plaintiff will present his case, after which the defendant will be allowed to ask questions of the plaintiff before presenting his counter-argument.
A reminder, there are no appeals in small claims court. My judgement will be final and binding. I may decide this case before we leave today, depending on the evidence, but I do have 10 days to decide, should I need them, in which case you will receive my decision by mail. Everyone understand?
Nods all around. We were sworn in, and then I was asked to present my case. For all the times this moment had gone through my mind in the last two years, I had really struggled with the brief sentences which would begin my case. I went with the following:
Your honor, this case is my last resort effort at being made whole after the defendant, [not publishing his name], struck my vehicle on the night of 7 April 2012. I am seeking $1600 actual cost of repairs to my vehicle, plus $900 in lost compensation and court costs, for a total of $2,500.
At this point, the judge interrupted, explaining we were limited to the vehicle damages, and that would only be if he ruled in my favor. I replied that I understood, and that – win or lose – I needed to do this for closure. I provided a document detailing how I’d arrived at the $2,500 figure to both the judge and defendant.
Next, I advised the judge I’d prepared a diagram of the intersection where the incident took place and handed out copies to everyone. I explained how the defendant had made the turn, stopped accelerating, wasn’t on his brakes, and was not signaling, forcing me to go around him on the right when he struck me from the left.
I followed this brief, high-level description of events by explaining why it took 2 years to file suit. (The kid had mentioned this in writing in his response to the complaint.)
As for why it’s taken me so long to file suit, a week after the incident, my insurance carrier notified me Mr. [defendant] had filed a claim against my policy. Unfortunately, he then never responded to any attempts by my carrier to investigate further. He did not return voicemail, email, or even conventional mail. I finally pressed my carrier to deny his claim for non-response a year later.
It was hard for me to not go into every minute detail of this case. You know me. That’s how I roll. All these details and possible discussion points had run through my mind a hundred times over the last two years. I had to roll the dice that, once I’d presented my case, the kid/defendant would ask me questions wherein I’d further prove my case, before going into his defense, which would hopefully be moot.
Once I’d completed my case, the judge asked the defendant what questions he had for me. He had none. The judge seemed surprised by this, but told him to go ahead with his case. It got off to a fantastic start. He’s looking down and pointing at MY diagram as he explains:
So I did make this turn, but I had no idea he was behind me…
That’s right. He starts out by admitting he had no idea what was going on around him. I couldn’t believe it. He goes on to half-mumble his way through what I can only imagine was an attempt to suggest he was already in the middle lane and I – for some bizarre reason – aggressively swerved back over and hit him. The only evidence he provided the court was a single picture of his busted headlight, obviously emailed to him from the insurance company.
So that’s pretty much how it happened.
I’m sitting there, staring straight ahead, trying to meditate; trying to get my breathing and heart rate in check. “That can’t be it. He has to have something more. I mean, why did he even bother showing up? Don’t get cocky, dude. Be cool. It could still go either way.” The judge asks if he has anything else.
Oh yeah. The damage inspector said that the way the fender was pushed back into the door suggests the vehicles were traveling at different speeds. So, like, the truck was going faster than my car.
The judge asked to see this evidence, but the kid then mumbles something-something about how his insurance company just told him that, but wouldn’t put anything in writing because they can’t represent him in small claims court. The judge matter-of-factly told him that made his professional opinion hearsay and inadmissible.
Now the judge asks him some additional questions.
You said you were in the middle lane when this happened, correct?
Kid says yes.
And this is the picture of damages sustained by your vehicle, correct? (Holds up picture of Honda headlight.)
Kid says yes.
Okay. So let’s assume you were in the middle lane and this big truck swerves into your lane. Your headlight hit under his driver’s side door. That means you were in his blind spot. It also means HALF the truck was in front of you and you should have seen it and known it was there. The only person I can see here who might have avoided this accident was you, as you had the third lane.
Kid suddenly gets defensive, asking what the judge means by “third lane.”
You said you were in the middle lane. That means you had the left lane.
Kid says, “Oh, yeah, okay.”
Judge says he needs to consult with another judge and will be right back. He leaves us in the tiny court room and goes down the hall to speak with the presiding judge for the court. We sit there in silence. I’m tripping balls. Fight-or-flight, combined with he-can’t-really-be-this-stupid-can-he, and just sitting there in silence. “You’re gonna win. I’m gonna win.”
10 minutes later, the judge returns.
I’m going to go ahead and rule on this one today, and I rule in favor of the plaintiff $2,500 plus court costs. The formal judgement will be available at the counter in a few minutes, or you can have it mailed to you. Thanks. We’re adjourned.
Judge didn’t even ask me how I came to the cost of my vehicle repairs – or if they were complete or not.
And I hadn’t even though about how he was in my blind spot or how half my truck was ahead of him that night.
I waited up front for the paperwork, as did the kid and his mom. I was called first, got my paper, a friendly congratulations from the clerk, and walked out into the sun. Fired up a smoke in the truck, called Vanessa and told her the good news. Went home and poured myself a nice Whiskey.
The next day, I got a call from the kid’s insurance company, asking me to sign some documents and get them back so they could issue a check for the full amount. Had the kid owned up to it, I would have fought with them for months and maybe got a grand out of them. Instead, I’m getting $2,552 for damages to a $2,000 truck I’ve driven pretty much every day since.
Lesson learned: Never, ever, ever, EVER give up.