06 September 2020

Small Claims 2

Hal 2001
Home Automation Interface
The goal of going to court is to be ‘made whole’. If you were injured, either physically or financially, you seek redress. Don’t try to profit, don’t attempt to win the lottery.

If you proceed to Small Claims court, you might find a few useful hints in the following. Otherwise, feel free to skip my scintillating prose and entertain yourself with 9gag.com or that old favorite, Wimp.com, whereupon farewell and I’ll see you in two weeks.

9Gag Wimp

Meanwhile, on to the article!

Leigh in 2001 pod capsule
Actual Home Automation Gadget
As related last time, I purchased an expensive piece of hi-tech home automation hardware that failed on multiple levels. In my complaint– the legal filing to begin a lawsuit– I summarized eight ways the product– and its manufacturer– failed the consumer. The first six addressed malfunctionings of the device, one point dealt with the failure of warranty service, but the final bullet had nothing to do with the product.

Part of the device setup required entering personal information– name, location, and email address. This was stored in company servers so that if the owner anywhere in the world needed to check the status of the gadget, the server would know where to find it and in theory, connect. Its lazy implementation turned out a major design flaw. I, the owner on my own doorstep, couldn’t directly connect with the doohickey. Instead, signals had to travel an outage-fraught seven-step journey to the company servers and back again.

Home Automation Examples
Home Automation Examples
Poor design ruined the product, but the company– this multi-billion enterprise– added insult to injury. They had a sneaky side scheme going. That personal information required above? They distributed it for advertising and sales purposes.

The Obama administration had created consumer law forbidding personal data use without authorization, but the succeeding administration killed that safeguard. Other laws provided some protection, which formed the eighth cause of action within the complaint.

Forms and Formulas

Small Claims cookie-cutter cases like evictions can use court-provided forms with check boxes. They don’t require knowledge of the law or even much thinking. At most, a landlord might attach photographs or a police report about the tenant’s cache of cocaine in the walls, but that’s about it.

Judges give Small Claims parties leeway, but plaintiffs can’t simply contend the respondent hurt their feelings and they therefore deserve a million dollars to make the insult go away. Courts generally require attorneys to appear for corporations, but individuals may choose not to employ legal representation. That meant I would be going up against a conglomerate’s substantial legal department.

Me, I’m a raw amateur, a David taking on professional giants on their turf, where even a shyster’s pin-stripe suit costs more than the amount sought in my pitiful case. Opposing lawyers and the judge spoke the same language, so I wanted to get as many things right as possible.

Judges know Small Claim litigants will makes mistakes, so part of their job is to look past minor errors. In return, I had to be clear, concise, and complete in presenting my case, and trust the court to ignore the worst blunders.

complaint document style
Complaint, page 1
The Stylistics

Each complaint contains a ’style’, the upper half of page one. It names the plaintiffs and the defendants, includes a case number assigned by the court, and specifies what the case is about, in my case, ‘Complaint for Damages’. Templates for ‘pleading papers’ ship with most word processors and can be found on-line.

I followed with these sections, some optional:
  • Jurisdiction and Venue
    • (Why this should be heard in this court)
  • Parties and Standing
    • (Why it’s proper for each party to appear)
  • Introduction
    • (Brief overview)
  • Facts Common to All Counts
    • (Optional general background of case)
  • Counts
    • (The allegations)
  • Relief and Remedies
    • (What the court is being asked to do)
  • signature
    • (Required)
  • attachments
    • (Optional)
Without intending to, the defendants provided me gifts. First, the manufacturer published an address in Tallahassee, meaning I didn’t have to drag an out-of-state party into court. Secondly, this conglomerate hadn’t registered with Florida’s Secretary of State’s Bureau of Corporations! I addressed these issues in the Jurisdiction and Venue and Parties and Standing section. I suspected a judge might take a dim view of this legal failure.

The installer had revealed himself as a jerk, one who’d drunk the ‘customer error’ corporate Kool-Aid. As duplicitous as he was, I still considered him a little guy trying to make a living. He had once registered with the state, but had let his registration and permits expire. Further, he hadn’t obtained either a county or city occupational license, weirdly called a ‘tax receipt’ in these here parts. I refrained from mentioning this in the original complaint on the theory I could bring it up later if necessary.

Down for the Counts

The primary lesson I had to learn was what in law gave me the right to sue. I had to determine (1) a case type, (2) within that the causes of action, and then (3) the elements to prove the validity of the causes of action. I pictured it like an outline:
  • type
    • cause(s) of action
      • elements of proof
    • cause(s) of action
      • elements of proof
Florida court cover sheets don’t offer a consumer product category, so I took a stab by choosing contract violations and negligence. Then came the tricky part– determining the causes of action and grouping them as ‘counts’ in the case. I used the following:
Attachment A, glossary
Attachment A, glossary
Count I
Misrepresentation of Product
Failure to Deliver Advertised Features
Comprehensive Failure of Defective Product to Perform

Count II
Failure to Correct Defects
Breach of Warranty
Breach of Contract
Denial of Use
Denial of Income

Count III
Failure to Protect Privacy of Customer by Unauthorized Distribution of Personal Details
I’m pretty sure I got much of that wrong, but I hoped the essential parts would pass muster in court. Counts I and III were directed solely at the manufacturer. Count II included both the maker and the installer.

Attachment C, diagram
Attachment C, diagram

Professionally appearing as an expert witness in computer fraud cases didn’t require me to know the law. I’m not a legal expert and those in the court system aren’t technology mavens, but I picked up a few things from depositions and hearings. I had to bridge the gap between my ignorance and theirs.

Just as I am woefully ignorant of legal essentials, jurists and juries tend to be uneducated about technology. By example, almost everything said about computers in the Casey Anthony case was in error. I further suspected much of the prosecutions’s chemistry was questionable, and meanwhile, a person’s life was at stake.

Past expert witness experience taught me the necessity to communicate and educate. Attachment A of my complaint contained a glossary of networking terms. Attachment B paired the order and invoice. Attachment C was a technical diagram depicting network connectivity. I spent a month sketching a visual tutorial, which beneficially helped me organize what I needed to say and would later come in handy in hearings.

People's Court Judge Marilyn Milian
See You in Court

The complaint ran longer than this article, fourteen pages plus three sheets of attachments. I was belatedly advised I made one tactical mistake: I’d checked the box for a judge to hear the case instead of jury. When facing off against a corporate giant, professional wisdom suggested a jury might sympathize more with the underdog.

Why is she ➡︎ still here? Find out why next week.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, legal paperwork - which leads either to victory or, of course, Bleak House's Court of Chancery (and we all know what happens there). I can hardly wait for Part 3!


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