Insurance defense attorneys are the experts at defending auto accident claims, big and small. They have a pattern for defending auto accident claims, damages, and negligence causes of action that you might be able to use to your own benefit if you have to represent yourself in small claims court.
Sadly, or happily depending on how you look at it, there are no Insurance Defense Attorneys to help you as a defendant in small claims court if you get sued for that fender bender at the mall.
Yes, the one where the dude says you dented his Harley sounding SUV.
In most small claims cases, Attorneys are not allowed to represent the people involved in the case (litigants). The parties must represent themselves.
However, you are not helpless in court alone. You can learn from the typical Insurance Defense Attorney pattern of fighting a simple auto accident claim. Here are some free tips to help you do exactly that.
The foundation of any auto accident claim defense strategy in court is to know is that you have to break the defense into sections.
Address each section separately. Deal with each section below one at a time so that you do not miss any opportunities to win your case.
1. Bring In Other People Who May Have Liability, or Make a Claim of Defendant.
Do you dispute liability for the accident?
If someone else may have contributed to the accident, another driver say, and that person is not involved in the law suit, a defendant can bring them into the case by filing a “Claim of Defendant”, which is also known as a “counter claim” in some courts.
Examples of when a defendant would want to file a Claim of Defendant and bring in another driver and/or make a claim against a plaintiff would include:
An accident where a drunk person hit you from behind, and you then hit the plaintiff – but plaintiff only sues you. You may feel that the drunk driver is actually at fault and the liable party.
As a defendant in small claims court on that fact set, you would have to file a Claim of Defendant on time to bring the drunk driver into the case as another defendant.
The process of making a claim of defendant is simple, but must be done in advance of any scheduled small claims court trial. The deadline to file a Claim of Defendant must be met. For more info and the free California Judicial Council Small Claims Claim of Defendant Forms, click here. Here is the actual Claim of Defendant Form for CA.
2. Challenge the Facts as Presented by the Plaintiff.
Most small claims auto accident cases have only 1 court date, a trial. Usually the trial is short, less than 1 day, and the Plaintiff gets to present their case first. It is the Plaintiff’s burden to prove up the claim.
Plaintiffs in an auto accident trial to recover damages must tell their side of the story, and give the judge evidence about the FACTS of the accident. To the extent that there is evidence to challenge the Plaintiff’s view of the facts of the collision, the Defendant should challenge all of them first, before challenging damages, or liability.
If you have evidence, including your own testimony or live witness testimony to dispute the Plaintiff’s versions of the facts, you should start there. Try to convince your facts are the true facts of the accident if the Plaintiff is not presenting the facts as you saw them.
3. Dispute Liability by Challenging the Elements of Negligence.
Nearly all auto accident damages cases are based upon a legal theory of “Negligence”. That theory is known as a cause of action, or a reason for suing.
Negligence at its simplified heart is really a claim that a person failed to satisfy a legal duty. In an auto accident setting, the duty that the plaintiff usually claims was breached is the duty to “Maintain control of your vehicle at all times.” This is a well established legal duty. To win an auto accident case, generally, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached (broke) that duty and caused damages to plaintiff.
In general, a negligence cause of action has 4 required elements that the plaintiff must prove:
1) defendant had a legal duty owed to plaintiff;
2) defendant breached that duty;
3) that breach of duty was the legal (proximate) cause of;
4) damages to plaintiff of plaintiff’s property.
A defendant should expect a well prepared plaintiff will offer evidence on each of these elements to prove up their case. A poorly prepared plaintiff may not fully understand how negligence works, and may fail to present evidence on all of the required elements of negligence.
If any of these 4 required elements are missing from plaintiff’s evidence, the defendant should prevail in a small claims auto accident case.
Because of this, it is wise for a defendant to attack each of these required elements as best they can during the trial. For example, a defendant may show:
a. they had no duty to plaintiff because they were not driving or stopped;
b. if there was a duty owed to plaintiff, it was not breached because defendant did not lose control of his/her vehicle at any time;
c. if they did breach the duty, and lose control of the vehicle, it was not the legal cause of the accident because plaintiff actually hit a different car; or
d. plaintiff suffered zero damages, and was just nervous.
Of course these are only examples of how to attack the elements of negligence. You will have to customize your approach to take into account the evidence that the plaintiff actually presents in court – whether you are surprised by it or not.
4. Present Your Evidence that the Plaintiff Was Negligent, or Contributed to the Collision
To the extent possible, a Defendant should present evidence that the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to the accident, or actually caused the accident.
Was the the plaintiff speeding? Was the plaintiff changing lanes? Would a reasonable a prudent driver seen your vehicle earlier? Did the plaintiff fail to wear his/her eye glasses? Was their windshield broke before the accident and interfering with plaintiff’s vision?
These are all questions that may, with the right evidence, help establish that the plaintiff was the true cause of the accident.
5. After Challenging the Facts and Liability, Dispute the Damages.
Even if a defendant believes the evidence shows they were not negligent, the defendant should also contest the plaintiff claim of damages. Do not ignore this very important aspect of defending an auto accident case. The judge may not see liability the same way you do, and if that happens, you do not want to have the plaintiff’s damages uncontested. If you do have to lose the case, you wan the award to be as low as possible, right?
Challenge every bill and estimate the plaintiff presents. If you have the evidence, present your own repair estimates. Point out, where possible, that the medical records show that the plaintiff had prior injuries. Argue to the judge that the photos clearly show (if true) old damage to the car that happened in a different accident.
Maybe that repair estimate includes work done on an old dent?
Many states, including California have a law that limits the damages an auto accident plaintiff may win if they did not have valid auto insurance at the time of of the collision. Without going into details here, we will just tell you that if there is no evidence the plaintiff had valid auto insurance at the time, that fact should be brought out in the trial by the defendant.
And there you have it. Simple tips you can take from the insurance defense industry into your own small claims defense. Defense attorneys are taught to follow this approach in every auto accident case, step by step. We hope it helps you win that unfair auto accident claim.
Questions? Leave a comment below.
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