In New York, many civil disputes are handled in small claims court. The rules governing what is a “small claim” and where such cases are heard vary depending on what county you reside in. But the basics of small claims are similar throughout the state.
If you are familiar with the types of small claims disputes seen on television courtroom shows, you might think all such cases are tried without attorneys. In fact, you may use an attorney to bring (or defend against) a small claim just as you would any other civil case. And while many small claims involve straightforward issues, others may raise potentially complex questions of law. If your small claim falls into the latter category, it is in your best interest to hire an experienced New York civil litigation attorney.
The Matter of the Missing $3,600
Of course, it's a different story if the person filing the small claim happens to be an attorney. Here is a recent example from a small claims case in Suffolk County. A local attorney withdrew $4,000 in $100 bills from his bank before heading to dinner at an upscale restaurant in the Town of Huntington. The attorney left $3,600 of his withdrawal in the center console of his car. He then left the car with a valet service that was under contract to the restaurant.
As you probably guessed, when the attorney retrieved his vehicle after dinner, the $3,600 was missing. He subsequently brought a small claims action against the valet service. In western Suffolk County, small claims up to $5,000 are heard in the District Court.
The attorney accused the valet service of breach of contract and negligence. Aside from his own statement regarding the missing money, the attorney offered no other evidence. The valet service presented no evidence in its defense, other than to say it had “no knowledge concerning the matter.” In response to the plaintiff's legal arguments, the valet service argued under New York law, it is not liable for the loss of any undisclosed personal property in a customer's vehicle.
Third District Judge C. Stephen Hackeling agreed with the valet service on that point. In a July 29 decision, he held the plaintiff could not recover damages on the basis of breach of contract. But he went on to rule for the plaintiff on the basis of the valet service's negligence.
As noted above, the defense offered no evidence to rebut the plaintiff's sworn testimony he left $3,600 in his car before giving his car to the valet and entering the restaurant. “Under normal circumstances,” Judge Hackeling observed, “the failure of the plaintiff to introduce direct eyewitness testimony, an admission of liability or compelling circumstantial evidence, would prohibit him from making a prima facie showing of defendant's negligence.” But in this case, the judge inferred the defendant's negligence from the mere fact the money was missing. In legal terms this is known as the doctrine of “res ispa loquitor,” which is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.”
Aside from the obvious lesson—don't leave several thousand dollars unattended in your car—this case illustrates how even a small claim can raise significant legal questions. If you are attempting to recover money from someone who has wronged you and need advice, contact our offices right away.