Advice on Resolving Small Claims Judgment
I have a few questions with regard to a small claims judgment. Can you help me?
I hope this is not too long or complicated. Last winter, in a snowstorm, I was hit while leaving a friend's driveway. I was taking her children home as a favor to her. I was not insured because my husband had canceled our policy against my wishes. I had been unemployed and couldn't afford a policy of my own, yet. (We are now separated.) There was little or no visible damage, yet the other driver claimed almost $2000 in repairs, and his insurance company demanded that I pay for it. I responded that this was a "no-fault" situation caused by the extreme weather. Using a large law firm, they sued me in small claims court and somehow won the case -- despite all the evidence I presented and despite the fact that the other driver didn't even remember the incident by then. The judge also said I had to prove I was NOT at fault, which violates the burden-of-proof rules. I was essentially railroaded by the lawyers. I have since obtained proof of insurance and told the plaintiff that I could not afford the judgement. I work only part-time, have no savings, no other income (not even child support) and am left with overdue bills as a result of the separation. I live 6 miles from the nearest grocery store and 20 miles from my new job. I have necessary medical appointments over 25 miles from home, and also provide school transportation for my daughter. I believe they are trying to suspend my license for non-payment. My question: What recourse do I have? Would legal-aid groups be able to help? Can I put a "stay" on the suspension due to extenuating circumstances? The hearing for a payment plan is scheduled for February, which is after the suspension date. As you probably know, the notice which supposedly explained all this was impossible to understand. Please help.
I understand how frustrating it can be to try to defend yourself in court, especially when you feel that you have a valid defense, but it seems that no one, including the judge and the court staff, is willing to listen to your side of the story. Unfortunately, many consumers who cannot afford to resolve claims out of court often do not have sufficient funds to hire a qualified attorney to represent them and argue their cases. Because many consumers have little or no quality legal advice, many do not appear to defend themselves, or if they do, they do not know how to best present their case. Many states do not allow parties to be represented by attorneys in small claims court, considering it to be the "people’s court." In states that do allow attorneys in small claims cases, it can create a significant disadvantage for the other party if he/she cannot afford an attorney, as you have personally witnessed. To read more about small claims court, and how the small claims procedures vary from state to state, you can visit this link.
The rules and procedures governing small claims courts vary significantly from state to state, including the amount of money the court can award, whether or not attorneys are allowed, and the amount of time the losing party has to appeal the court’s decision. For example, many states, such as California, provide defendants who have had a judgment entered against them 30 days to file an appeal with a higher court; however, other states allow for much shorter time periods (e.g., 7 days in Michigan). Because of the short time periods allowed for the appeal of small claims cases, I would recommend that you consider filing an appeal as soon as possible if you think that the court erred in issuing a judgment against you in this case.
In regard to your statements about the judge stating that you were required to prove that you were not at fault, it is possible that your state has a law relating to presumption of fault in certain types of auto accidents. In your case, you state that you were pulling out of a driveway when the accident occurred; I assume that the car that hit you was traveling down the road which you were attempting to enter. In this scenario, it is possible that you are presumed to be at fault since you were entering the road into oncoming traffic which probably had the right of way. Since I do not know your state’s laws and was not present during the small claims hearing, I cannot tell you why the court ruled the way it did. However, I can tell you that, from my personal experience, a person entering traffic is almost always held at fault unless the driver of the oncoming vehicle caused the accident through gross negligence.
I strongly encourage you to discuss this situation with an attorney licensed in your state to determine what you can do to appeal the judgment issued by the small claims court. Since you have a limited income, you may qualify for reduced rate legal services through your county Legal Aid Society. You may also wish to contact your state or county bar association to explain your situation and ask about reduced rate legal services. Read more about Legal Aid.
I wish you the best of luck in finding a way to either resolve this judgment, either using the legal process or by settling the debt with the judgment creditor. To read more about the various options available to assist consumers in resolving debt, I invite you to visit the Bills.com Debt Help page. I wish you the best of luck in resolving this debt, and hope that the information I have provided helps you Find. Learn. Save.