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How to litigate a Mini Tort lawsuit in small claims court

Tips for when an at-fault driver who causes damage to your car refuses to pay your mini tort claim

mini tort lawsuit for car damageLast week, I wrote about filing your Mini Tort claim for car damage in small claims court. Yes, I do recognize that most people would rather go to a dentist than go to court. But sometimes, it’s a necessary last resort. And the good news is you don’t need to hire an insurance lawyer or a lawyer familiar with automobile accidents to recover a Mini Tort, so hey, there is at least a bright side to this.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a “Mini Tort claim”:

Under Michigan’s Mini Tort law, innocent people involved in an auto accident can recover a maximum of up to $1,000 for vehicle damage from the other driver who caused the crash.  Normally, the owner of the damaged car makes the claim with the at-fault driver and it goes through his or her auto insurance company. The insurer pays the Mini Tort claim.  Here’s information on how to collect your Mini Tort.

Now, this may sound shocking, but I’ve found that sometimes the person who causes an automobile accident doesn’t want to admit responsibility for it and say it’s their fault.  When this happens, a good option that will still save you a lot of money in legal fees and help you avoid hiring a lawyer is to file a Mini Tort lawsuit in small claims court.

Here are some tips on how to litigate a Mini Tort claim:

  1. Trial proceedings in small claims court
  2. Bringing witnesses to court
  3. No lawyers, jury trials, trial transcripts or appeals in small claims court
  4. Preserving the right to lawyers, jury trials, trial transcripts and appeals
  5. Elements of a Mini Tort claim
  6. Evidence to prove a Mini Tort claim

1. Trial proceedings in small claims court
The District Court clerk sends notice to the plaintiff and the defendant of “[w]hen and where to appear” for a trial “before a judge of the small claims division.” (MCL 600.8404(1); 600.8406(1))

A judge who is hearing a Mini Tort trial in Small Claims Court “shall conduct” the proceeding “in an informal manner so as to do substantial justice between the parties according to the rules of substantive law but shall not be bound by the statutory provisions or rules of practice, procedure, pleading or evidence …” (MCL 600.8411(2))
In terms of proving her case, the person who filed the Mini Tort lawsuit may bring “all books, papers, and witnesses necessary to prove the claim.” (MCL 600.8406(1); 600.8404(1)(b); and MCR Rule 4.303(A))

2. Bringing witnesses to court
Although “[a] letter or affidavit from a witness will be accepted as evidence by the court without the witness being physically present at the trial,” according to the State Court Administrative Office’s web site, “it is better if [a person who has filed a Mini Tort/Small Claims lawsuit] have [her] witnesses come to court.”

However, when circumstances require, a litigant can compel a witness’s appearance for a Mini Tort/small claims trial by asking the clerk of the court to issue and serve a subpoena on the witness. A “fee for attendance and mileage” must also be paid to the witness. (See MCR 2.506(A)(1) and (G) and the State Court Administrative Office’s website)

3. No lawyers, jury trials, trial transcripts or appeals in small claims court
Plaintiffs and defendants in small claims court cannot be represented by attorneys (that’s the good news): “An attorney at law … shall not take part in the filing, prosecution, or defense of litigation in the small claims division.” (MCL 600.8408(1))

In addition to not having “the right to counsel,” plaintiffs and defendants who go to trial in small claims court waive their “right to trial by jury” and “any right of appeal.” (MCL 600.8408(4); 600.8411(2); 600.8412) Moreover, no “verbatim record” of the Small Claims trial proceedings will be made. (MCL 600.8411(2))

4. Preserving the right to lawyers, jury trials, trial transcripts and appeals
For plaintiffs and/or defendant in small claims court who do not wish to waive their rights as described above, “both parties,” i.e., “the plaintiff or defendant,” “may remove the case from the small claims division to the general civil division of the district court,” where the litigants have the rights to be represented by counsel, to have their cases tried before a jury, to have record of the proceedings made and to appeal unfavorable judgments to a higher court for review. (MCL 600.8402(3); 600.8408(4); 600.8411(1) and (2))

5. Elements of a Mini Tort claim
To win on a Mini Tort lawsuit for vehicle damage in small claims court, a plaintiff must satisfy the following elements of a Mini Tort claim:

  • A person’s car or truck was damaged in a Michigan car or truck accident.
  • The damaged car or truck was covered by a valid Michigan No Fault auto insurance policy at the time of the accident. (MCL 500.3135(4)(e))
  • The other driver who caused the accident was 50% or more at fault. (MCL 500.3135(4)(a))
  • The car or truck damage is not covered by insurance. (MCL 500.3135(e))
  • The dollar value of the money damages being sought in the Mini Tort lawsuit equals the cost for repairing the accident-related car or truck damage, but the maximum Mini Tort recovery is limited to $1,000. (MCL 500.3135(e))

6. Evidence to prove a Mini Tort claim
Below are examples of the types of evidence that a person should consider presenting during her or his Mini Tort trial in Small Claims Court:

  • Police report/crash report/accident report
  • Written witness statements provided to police at crash scene
  • Vehicle damage photos
  • Damage repair estimates
  • Moving violation and/or hazardous action tickets issued to the Defendant
  • Letters and/or affidavits from witnesses
  • Proof of valid No-Fault auto insurance (For the damaged vehicle on the crash date)

Additional small claims court information

Below are links to the helpful information provided by the Michigan State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) concerning the filing and litigation of cases in the Small Claims Division:

Small Claims – Self Help

SCAO-Approved Forms For Use in Small Claims

Related information:

Top 8 facts about Michigan collision coverage insurance

 

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