Across the country, limitations placed on small claims lawsuits are continuing to increase, even while the cost to file these lawsuits remains low. Those changes make small claims an appealing option for those who believe a car wash damaged their vehicle.
If you are a car wash owner or operator, you may face a small claim in the future and be required to defend yourself in court. You should understand this legal process and know how to prevent these claims from being brought against your company.
What Are Small Claims?
Filing a lawsuit in state court can be intimidating and costly, which is why many individuals choose to file a lawsuit in small claims court instead. This court handles claims made by individuals who have simple cases with a low dollar value. The claimant presents their case to a judge who will offer adjudication, and they can avoid expensive legal costs and the formalities of traditional court.
Claims That Can Be Filed in Small Claims Court
As the process is simplified, some types of cases cannot be filed in small claims court. There are also limitations on dollar amounts that can be awarded, which vary from state to state. In small claims court, the claims that can be filed tend to involve money.
Often, small claims court is used for bad debt collection. Showing that a debt was owed but was not paid is relatively simple. After a creditor receives a judgment, they can collect the debt using collection techniques. However, there are other types of cases an individual can file in small claims court, including disputes regarding:
- Loan repayment
- A security deposit return
- Failure to fix an appliance or car properly
- Personal injury matters, such as a dog bite
- Clothing damaged as a result of cleaning efforts or alterations
- Failure to meet a service contract’s terms, such as failing to properly install a new roof
In some states, other cases can also be resolved in small claims court, such as:
- Police brutality or false arrest
- Restitution, also known as the request to return a property item
Small claims concerning automotive damage may be common for car washes. If someone claims, “Your car wash damaged my paint,” their claim may be in relation to scratches, dents, paint chips, window cracks and other car damage.
Claims That Cannot Be Filed in Small Claims Court
Regardless of the state a claimant resides in, they cannot file a lawsuit in small claims court for any of the following cases:
- Name change
Additionally, lawsuits against the federal government must be filed in a federal court.
What Happens if a Small Claim Is Filed Against Your Car Wash?
If someone files a small claims lawsuit against your car wash after alleging the car was damaged in the car wash, your business will be considered the defendant in the suit. As such, you should understand the process and know what to expect.
The plaintiff will file papers at the courthouse and pay a fee, and a court date will be set. You will then be served papers by a third party, the local sheriff’s department or the Post Office. On the papers, you can find the plaintiff’s name, your car wash listed as the defendant and the trial’s location, date and time. There will also be instructions about the return date, before which you must file an appearance.
Next, you will appear before the court, face the plaintiff and argue your side of the case on the trial date. If either party does not appear at the trial, the case will be decided against them.
In most courthouses, small claims cases go through mediation first. During this process, you will meet in a private room with the plaintiff and a mediator, who is a trained volunteer or professional employed by the courthouse. The mediator will attempt to help you and the plaintiff come to a private agreement. The case will continue on to trial if the dispute cannot be resolved in mediation.
In a small claims case, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. The plaintiff needs to be able to prove that their car was damaged by your car wash. To defend against the claim, you should provide documentation or evidence that your car wash did not damage the plaintiff’s vehicle, such as:
- Evidence of clear entrance signs: These signs should include information on prohibited vehicles, your car wash’s policy on liability and accessories that should not go through the car wash.
- Documentation of relevant information: Information relevant to this case may include maintenance schedules, equipment schematics and detergent specifications. These documents can clearly demonstrate the safety precautions and professionalism in your car wash’s operations.
- Your car wash’s damage claim forms: If you can provide these forms and documentation of your procedures, this can show the judge your car wash takes customer care seriously. This documentation can also demonstrate an alternate path was available to resolve this dispute outside the legal system. If the plaintiff did not use this procedure, their case may be significantly weakened.
- Video surveillance from car wash cameras: Obtain evidence that can offer a clear picture of a vehicle’s condition when it entered your car wash. Preferably, this video would be arrayed to provide multiple angles and displayed in ultra-high resolution. Provide video from the cameras at the entrance and exit of the car wash and from the wide-angle bay cameras to prove nothing unusual happened during the wash.
- Your car wash disclaimer examples: You should have car wash damage disclaimers posted on site, so bring evidence of these disclaimers to the trial.
Typically, the trial in a small claims case does not take long. Clearly and efficiently present your evidence. Many of these cases operate without attorneys, so you may be questioning the plaintiff about their claims. Ask clear and direct questions and maintain a calm and polite tone.
Ensure you ask the plaintiff about their requested dollar amount to cover the repairs and ask whether this amount is from an estimate or received from an auto repair shop. Ask whether the plaintiff inspected the damaged area closely immediately before and after the car sustained the alleged damage.
After both you and the plaintiff present your sides of the case, the judge will make their decision, after which you will be dismissed.
What if You Lose a Small Claims Case?
Sometimes, a case may be decided against you. Additionally, failing to appear will result in a default judgment. The best way to deal with a lost small claims case is to resolve it quickly. This means paying the debt to the plaintiff within a short timeframe.
The debt you will need to pay includes the plaintiff’s legal fees paid throughout the process. After a decision has been made on the case, the plaintiff does not need to negotiate the award with you. If you do not pay the debt within the required timeframe, the plaintiff can request legal assistance with collections.
If the award is sold to a collections agency, the agency will relentlessly pursue it. The court may also help them by initiating collections proceedings. This choice will add additional costs to the plaintiff’s award, lead to more required appearances, damage your credit and may even lead to contempt of court and an arrest if you ignore further summons. As a result, resolving the lost small claims case as quickly as possible is crucial.
How to Prevent Small Claims
Legal proceedings are often expensive, stressful and time-consuming. The process of fighting a case can take months or years, depending on the particular motions filed and the specific circumstances. Fortunately, there are ways your car wash can prevent these small claims from occurring in the first place by troubleshooting certain issues.
Your car wash’s employees should be trained on how to listen and respond appropriately and quickly to customer complaints. The complaint and evidence should then be reported to the car wash owner or manager.
Of course, not every complaint will be legitimate, and you and your employees may not be able to de-escalate and resolve every situation that arises. However, if your employees are sufficiently trained and can ensure your customers receive a consistently positive experience, your car wash may be able to resolve most problems outside of small claims court.
If employees are not properly trained, they can cause auto damage claims themselves. If an employee is ill-trained or careless, this can lead to something going wrong and a car sustaining damage, such as when they are driving a car around the lot.
To prevent car damage caused by an employee, ensure there are specific driving procedures in place. These procedures may include keeping a foot on the brake prior to putting the car in drive and driving the vehicle at a slow speed. The greatest number of accidents that occur on a car wash lot take place when employees are driving in reverse, so be sure this type of driving is included in your procedures.
If an incident has already occurred, take steps to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future. You might adjust your policies so customers must operate their cars instead of employees. Focus on more than preventing damage to customer cars by working to prevent other harmful occurrences to your car wash’s reputation, such as negative reviews.
One of the key methods of preventing a small claim is by implementing policies, procedures and forms that address damage caused to cars while they are at the car wash. With these procedures and damage forms in place, a small claims action can
be prevented altogether.
Damage forms should be accessible to employees to ensure the reporting process is streamlined. Your procedures should ensure aggrieved customers feel listened to and respected through every step of the process.
No matter what the customer’s demeanor is or what their claims are, your car wash’s employees should remain friendly. After the complaint is reported to the manager or owner, they should try to defuse the situation before it escalates. If it is clear your car wash is at fault, take responsibility and do what you can to correct the situation.
Keeping an Eye on Common Damage Culprits
Several common practices and pieces of equipment can cause automotive damage at a car wash, all of which can produce a small claim:
- Auto sensors: An auto sensor is a vehicle feature that is often the cause of washing problems and damage. An auto sensor that instigates automatic braking can lead to problems and damage, though this problem can usually be avoided by putting the vehicle in neutral.
- Loose items: Items that are loose on a car can cause problems, such as loose side mirrors or loose trim. Identifying these items before allowing a car into the wash can help prevent damage from occurring.
- Windshield wipers: Windshield wipers, particularly rear wipers, are susceptible to getting snagged, which can cause damage.
- Anti-collision technologies: Some of these technologies cause cars to auto brake while they are inside a car wash. While anti-brake systems tend to shut down when the vehicle is off, there are some models that do not operate this way. While auto manufacturers are improving these systems, it can still cause issues to arise in a car wash.
- Cars not going into neutral: If a vehicle does not go into neutral when it is turned off, this can lead to issues. Cars should always be turned off when unattended, and for cars that do not go into neutral when turned off, customers may need to remain in their cars.
Technology has grown more sophisticated in recent years and parts are more costly, which means auto body shops charge more for repairs than they have in the past. As a result, a car wash’s costs for liability have also increased. Even a simple paint job or a detached mirror can cost your car wash hundreds, which is why it is essential to take steps to prevent damage from occurring.
Be sure to check and maintain your car wash’s components, as well. Use quality cleaners and tools to help prevent damage to cars. Avoid using damaged equipment, and post signs about how to correctly use car wash equipment so customers can prevent damage to their vehicles.
Contact JBS Industries
At JBS Industries, we are a leading manufacturer of car wash supplies. Since 1979, we have been creating high-quality industrial and car wash cleaners, and we have since grown our business across the spectrum of professional cleaning. Our customers range from maintenance crews to big rig wash owners. Along with supplying to the automotive industry, we are a provider of cleaning solutions across multiple industries.
Our growth and success can be attributed to our commitment to quality, value, service and innovation. If you are a car wash business owner, contact us at JBS Industries for the top-performing cleaning solutions you need.