Should I take the unlicensed driver who destroyed my car to Chicago small claims court?
April 21, 2008 5:38 PM   Subscribe

My car was just totaled by an unlicensed, uninsured 16-year-old driver in Chicago. I'm insured, but I have no collision coverage, so any/all expenses are strictly out-of-pocket. The teen responsible was found to be 100% liable on the police report. Can/should I take the family to small claims court? Related: Can anyone suggest a salvage guy that pays a fair price for junked cars and a decent lawyer to represent me in small claims court? Do I even need a lawyer in small claims court? Sorry - I'm new to this.

Driving along to work this morning, when a car pulls out of nowhere right in front of me. Nobody was hurt luckily, but it was a hard crash... with way more damage to my car than to hers. She turned out to be uninsured, unlicensed, and was also cited for failing to yield at a stop sign.

Unfortunately I never sprung for collision insurance (bare minimum in Chicago is liability insurance), so I'm pretty much hung out to dry as far as paying for the repairs. The estimate is about $3800 - which just so happens to be the same as the blue book value of the car ('95 Honda Accord).

I'm thinking my best option is to trash the car, get what i can from a salvage guy for it, and put that towards a new hoopty off Craigslist just so I can get to work (my commute is roughly 20 miles - I live in the city but work in a suburb that isn't particularly accessible by public transportation). So I guess I have three questions:

1) Is this the best solution?

2) If so, do you know the name/number of a good salvage guy in Chicago that won't totally rip me off?

3) Can I take this to small claims court, if I can should I get a lawyer, and if so do you know one?
posted by hypocritical ross to Human Relations (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In some states, you can't use a lawyer in Small Claims Court. You can obviously consult with a lawyer outside of the courtroom, but in most states you have to stand up and argue the case yourself.

That said, it looks like Illinois allows lawyers to argue in Small Claims. I'm not from Chicago so I can't speak with certainty.
posted by Leon-arto at 5:46 PM on April 21, 2008

Loss of property is one of the types of things that small claims court does. Lawyers are generally not present in small claims court. I don't know about Chicago, but the staff at small claims courts are usually quite helpful in showing you the ropes (that is, what forms you have to fill in and how, and explaining what to expect -- not giving you preferential treatment over your opponent, of course)

You should request the money directly before suing anybody. It just might work, and it will probably look bad on you in court if you just jump to suing without trying to work it out.

The small claims court procedure is generally that you each tell your story (perhaps in writing in advance) and then the judge (or JP) asks each of you questions and you get to cross examine each other.
posted by winston at 5:51 PM on April 21, 2008

2 Words - BIG PHOTOS
posted by Freedomboy at 5:53 PM on April 21, 2008

The unlicenced, unisured 16 year old, non-adult has parents, no doubt? Homeowner's and personal liability coverage sometimes cover stuff like this, so I would not rule out that approach. Sue the parents, if need be. Somebody has deeper pockets.

I'd spend a few dollars on a local lawyer consult, but would certainly ask for the blue book amount minus salvage value from the driver to keep it out of court, but I would not for a microsecond walk away from a $3800 +/- harm without a fight.
posted by FauxScot at 6:00 PM on April 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

You should request the money directly before suing anybody. It just might work, and it will probably look bad on you in court if you just jump to suing without trying to work it out.

Yeah, I assume you tried just asking for the money first, right? And did so in writing. Lots of times a stern letter sent Registered Mail lets people know that you're serious. No one wants to take a day off work to go to court.

I took an old landlord to small claims court for trying to steal my deposit (I won). The court staff are very nice. You don't need a lawyer... but you do need to bring everything related to the case to court. No do-overs.
posted by meta_eli at 6:02 PM on April 21, 2008

Do you know anything about the girl/her family? Being unlicensed and uninsured doesn't always mean they're broke, but I would begin with the premise that she/they are and look for evidence to the contrary. Maybe call them and ask if they'll settle with you. (I seem to remember hearing that some small-claims judges don't like it when a party's first step is a lawsuit anyway.) A $3800 judgment against someone without any money isn't really much compensation. You should include the odds of being able to collect in your is-it-even-worth-it equation.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 6:04 PM on April 21, 2008

Response by poster: I probably should add for the record that when the accident occurred, the daughter ran away from the scene into her house (which was maybe 100 yards away), and then her dad came out, moved her car onto a side street before the police arrived, threatened to beat the shit out of me, and then told the cops that his wife had been in the car with his daughter (which was not true). Based on this, I'm assuming that trying to get money out of these people is going to be difficult to say the least.
posted by hypocritical ross at 6:06 PM on April 21, 2008

Any other witnesses?
posted by Pants! at 6:09 PM on April 21, 2008

Did they look like they had any money? I'm just asking this because it would suck to go through all this only to find out they are judgment proof (lawyer speak for you can't get squeeze money out of a stone). But yeah small claims (after a few sternly worded official looking letters via certified mail) is probably the way to go. This is basically what they deal with all day. Just make sure you find out how many estimates you need to get for your state (a lot of times it is three, but I have no idea for your state, I'm just warning you that before you junk it, make sure you've collected all your evidence).

IANAL and I seriously know nothing about IL law, but it shouldn't be to hard for you to figure out on your own.
posted by whoaali at 6:18 PM on April 21, 2008

Go file a suit in small claims for the FULL blue book value, + any other expenses ( rental car, bus pass to get back and forth to work, etc). If you consult with a lawyer, add that cost into your claim as well

take a copy of the police report with you, especially if it confirms that the kid was driving.

This is exactly what small claims court is for.
posted by Mr_Chips at 6:20 PM on April 21, 2008

On salvage yards, the Pick-n-pull chain is low-hassle and will give you a decent offer over the phone. For other local places, call your regular trusted mechanic - they'll probably know who's decent.
posted by zippy at 6:32 PM on April 21, 2008

...and then her dad came out, moved her car onto a side street before the police arrived, threatened to beat the shit out of me, and then told the cops that his wife had been in the car with his daughter (which was not true)

Jesus, you need a lawyer. Many lawyers do free first consultations, often over the phone, to help you sort through whether you want to hire them or not. Describe this situation to a couple of lawyers (ask your friends and family for good ones they know, or just start calling the biggest ads in the phone book) and I'll bet you find one ready to jump at the chance.
posted by mediareport at 6:36 PM on April 21, 2008

hypocritical ross: I probably should add for the record that when the accident occurred, the daughter ran away from the scene into her house (which was maybe 100 yards away), and then her dad came out, moved her car onto a side street before the police arrived, threatened to beat the shit out of me, and then told the cops that his wife had been in the car with his daughter (which was not true).

Dude, that's some serious shit. Get a lawyer now and stop talking about it here.
posted by mkultra at 6:43 PM on April 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

Do I understand from your reference to the teen being found 100% liable in the police report that some of the contestable things you're talking about have already been investigated by the police, who reached the same conclusions you did? As in, the cops found that the girl was driving and not the mother, etc?

If not, start looking for witnesses now. When my wife was hit in a parking lot a few months ago, it quickly turned into a he said, she said kind of thing with ICBC (the provincial insurance company up here), and a key point in keeping us safe and non-liable was the fact that the accident happened in front of a restaurant full of my wife's coworkers who were there for an after work happy hour. So a couple of them came out and took cellphone pictures of the cars relative to each other, where they were relative to the buildings, the traffic arrows clearly pointing the direction opposite the one the other guy was going, and all that stuff.

There was no police report in this case. In yours, if the police have investigated and found the facts already then you're probably a little better off. It also suggests that this guy is guilty of deliberately lying to a police officer which can't be a good thing...
posted by Naberius at 7:03 PM on April 21, 2008

Also, if it was a hard crash, you may find yourself with whiplash tomorrow ... if you see a doctor, that'll be more expense to add to your claim. I hope you don't get it, but I did from a similar crash last year. (My treatment -- painkillers & massage -- was covered by my car insurance, though, which then got reimbursed by the other driver's insurance ... your policy may not allow this.) Good luck.
posted by lisa g at 7:35 PM on April 21, 2008

I'm not always a fan of lawyering up, but the father threatened you. (Please tell me the police talked to Daddy and documented this.) Normally, I'd suggest you to talk to the person and try to settle. In this instance, some professional correspondence from the lawyer might make the settlement easier to arrange.

And yes, you deserve a settlement. This morning you had a car that got you to and from your job. Now you've got salvage value. She is responsible. She (or her parents) can settle or be sued.
posted by 26.2 at 8:08 PM on April 21, 2008

Have you spoken to your insurance company/agent at all about this?

I was in a sort of similar situation many years ago (unlicensed, uninsured teen took his Grandmother's car out of storage and went joyriding; ran a red light and I t-boned into him). Although he didn't have coverage, my insurance company was able to assist me in getting a settlement from his parents (I believe it was either from their homeowners insurance or possibly the coverage on the Grandmother's car). I did, in the end, also need a lawyer, because they counter-sued (on totally frivolous grounds), but it was my insurance company (State Farm) that was most helpful.
posted by anastasiav at 8:22 PM on April 21, 2008

Who owns the car that the kid was driving? The kid? The parents? Someone else? If the car itself has coverage, then your car should be covered by the owner's liability insurance (Property Damage coverage). Auto insurance follows the vehicle first, then the driver.
posted by mewithoutyou at 8:49 PM on April 21, 2008

Something like this happened to a family member. In our case, the insurance company was helpful, since we had comprehensive (basically they were subrogating to cover what would otherwise be their out-of-pocket costs). In your case I would not expect any help/interest from that direction.

Biggest thing I can say to you: document, document document. Do everything in writing, preferably registered mail. Don't have any phone or in-person conversations with the other party, preferably at all, but if you must, get a lawyer and bring them. From the sounds of the people you're dealing with, I'd avoid being anywhere near them except in a courtroom.

If I were in your shoes, I'd accept right now that you're going to pay for a few hours of a lawyer's time. Have them help you create a 'game plan' for what you're going to do. The first step will probably be writing a strongly-worded letter to the family, giving them the option to pay up without filing papers. The next step will be small claims. I don't think it's really necessary to have the lawyer come with you to small claims (although by all means, bring a friend or friends for support, it's just not that procedurally complicated that you need a law degree to navigate it). The next step after that, assuming you win, will be trying to have the judgment enforced against them, or selling the judgment to a collection agency for some smaller amount.

In any case, I wouldn't waste any time getting thee to a lawyer at least for the initial consult, and just make sure to write everything you do down, and for goodness sakes, don't lose anything! (A photocopier is your friend.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:53 PM on April 21, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks a bunch to everyone who's taken the time to help. It all happened in front of a gas station that guys tend to hang out in front of, so I'll probably stop by there tomorrow and see if anyone saw what happened. Wish I had taken some pictures before the guy moved his car (no camera handy at the time), although I'd think that between the fact that he moved the car and lied to the cops I should be in good shape legally (particularly with a police report in my favor).

Looks like I'm off on the hunt for a lawyer now. Thanks again everyone.
posted by hypocritical ross at 9:07 PM on April 21, 2008

As anastasiav said, "Have you spoken to your insurance company/agent at all about this?"

I ask because the fact that you don't have collision coverage, if I recall correctly, doesn't mean you can't make a claim for this. Collision coverage pays for your car's damage when you are the one at fault. If you are not at fault, your insurance should pay for your damages and then they will go after the other driver.

I had a car totaled by a hit and run driver back in the days when I drove a beater car (and hence couldn't get collision insurance), and I put in a claim and the insurance company dealt with it. (Actually, they totaled the car, but it was still drivable, so I got the car back and got a check for most of its value.)

You may still need a lawyer, but it kind of sounds as if you haven't talked to the insurance agent yet because you think they won't cover it anyway. You might be pleasantly surprised.
posted by litlnemo at 9:20 PM on April 21, 2008

(Though I guess it might vary by state and what your state requires you to carry. I know that here in WA I've always had underinsured motorist insurance which covers damages by uninsured/underinsured drivers, like the one who hit you.)
posted by litlnemo at 9:21 PM on April 21, 2008

I hope you told the cops that he threatened you. That's also a crime in itself.
posted by fructose at 10:15 PM on April 21, 2008

Call your friends who have been in car accidents, and ask them if they liked their Personal Injury lawyer. If they did, get their number and call them up. Tell them on the phone that you know their former client and that you'd like to chat with them about your situation over the phone. They should be happy to spend ten or fifteen minutes with you on the phone telling you what the deal is. If you like the way they sound, set up a meeting in person. If you don't like the way they sound, call the next one. If you have to, look in the phone book for two or three and call them all asking the same questions. Just tell your story and see what they say, there is no charge for this and they do it all the time. You may not be hurting now, but you may have an injury that doesn't show up immediately. Really, it happens. Regardless, in this instance a PI lawyer is someone you should at least talk to if not use.
posted by pwb503 at 10:30 PM on April 21, 2008

litlnemo, if he doesn't have collision coverage, he probably can't file the claim with his own insurance. If you have collision coverage, then you can, because if the insurance company is unable to collect for whatever reason, well, you were covered anyway. But if you don't have collision coverage, and they were to take care of your claim only to find that they can't collect off of the other driver, then they've just paid a claim for something you weren't covered for. The uninsured/underinsured may cover it, but they're likely not going to handle things in the meantime.
posted by azpenguin at 10:58 PM on April 21, 2008

The uninsured/underinsured may cover it, but they're likely not going to handle things in the meantime.

Not necessarily true. I have insurance in CA, but this is exactly what happened to me. I have no collision coverage. I got rear-ended by somebody, filed the claim with my insurance company and they tried to track down the other guy's insurance. When they couldn't, they said they'd fill it with the uninsured coverage.
posted by one_bean at 1:16 AM on April 22, 2008

In IL you are required by law to carry uninsured/under insured motorist coverage for exactly this situation. If you have an auto insurance policy since 2006 your insurance will probably pay for this. Other relevant advice is in there, namely that you can take them to court.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:57 AM on April 22, 2008

I knew someone once who was sued for causing an accident without insurance. She was an adult, and dirt poor, and there were no parents or homeowners' insurance to come to the rescue, so basically money was garnished from her paychecks for years under court order, just like it would be if she failed to pay child support or similar.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:28 AM on April 22, 2008

So far as wrecking yards, I don't know if they're actually any good or not, but Victory Auto Wreckers has been around for years. And they've got that fantastic commercial that they've been using since the '70s. If your door falls off when you try to open it, you should totally give them a call.
posted by hwyengr at 1:36 PM on April 22, 2008

What one_bean and a robot made out of meat said, azpenguin. It didn't matter that I didn't have collision when my car was hit, because I wasn't the one at fault. (I wasn't even there. It was parked legally.) The uninsured motorist insurance is what covers this if the at-fault driver can't be found and made to pay. At any rate, the insurance company can advise the hypocritical ross about this, and he should call them (and, sure, have a lawyer handy too) before taking other actions.
posted by litlnemo at 7:36 PM on April 22, 2008

Response by poster: Geico says that the compulsory uninsured motorist insurance covers medical injuries, not property. You have the option of getting some other coverage instead of collision that covers your property in case of a collision with an uninsured motorist, but I didn't carry this form of insurance on my policy so this does me no good. Geico has made it abundantly clear that they will NOT be helping me in this one.

Additionally, I've talked to a lawyer and the Chicago Bar Association - both of which told me that most lawyers won't take a case like this because the returns are too low and the chance of actually receiving payment are too high.

In the meantime, I sold the remains of my car this morning for $150. Most of the salvage yards only pay $100 or $125, so I guess I got a pretty good deal.

This sucks.
posted by hypocritical ross at 10:14 AM on April 23, 2008

That's weird, but maybe it has to do with differences in state law between your state and mine, or perhaps things have changed since my hit and run situation a few years back. Or maybe Geico sucks. Sorry about the car; this really does suck. I guess you should take this to small claims. The link that a robot made out of meat posted earlier has some useful information about how to deal with this situation in IL, if you missed it.
posted by litlnemo at 1:36 PM on April 24, 2008

> both of which told me that most lawyers won't take a case like this because the returns are too low

This sounds like they must be talking about personal-injury lawyers who typically work in return for a cut of any eventual award (working on contingency). This is not the avenue I'd suggest that you take -- I think you might just want to buy an hour or two of a competent attorney's time to help you draft up a good dunning letter to the uninsured jerks, and then maybe spend a little more time preparing you for small-claims.

I don't think there's much chance that they'd refuse, since you'd be paying cash-on-the-barrel-head for their time, not on contingency. To the lawyer, there's no risk.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:20 PM on April 24, 2008

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