Ask The Attorney

What Can I Do About a Mechanic’s Frivolous Lawsuit?

I recently hired a mechanic to troubleshoot a problem with one of the main engines on my 48-foot power boat. He left a message for me with his findings, and he started working on the repairs before I could get back to him. I wanted to get a second opinion from another mechanic — but by the time I was able to respond to the first mechanic’s telephone message, the engine was completely torn apart.  I told the mechanic that I would not pay for his work because I never authorized it.  He said some angry words and left the boat without putting the engine back together.  He later sent two invoices to me, each with a different amount owed. I considered paying the smaller invoice just to be rid of him, but before I could contact him he hired an attorney and without so much as a phone call they filed suit against me in Superior Court, for an amount considerably higher than the amount on either of the two invoices. It’s still a relatively small claim ($5,300), but to make matters worse, they are asking for reimbursement of their attorney’s fees. This has escalated so quickly that I can barely keep up, but I do have several questions for you. First, am I liable to pay for work that I never authorized? How can he submit multiple invoices for different amounts and then file suit for a third amount? Is he entitled to recover attorneys’ fees in a lawsuit like this? And finally, this was a pretty small case — so, why didn’t he file this case in small claims court? 
I have been writing this column for almost six years, and I can count the number of “rants” that I have embarked on with one hand. My response to this question, unfortunately, is a rant.

Our reader has run head-on into one of the biggest problems with the civil litigation system in the United States: If you are willing to spend money foolishly, you can use the legal system as a weapon rather than as a dispute resolution system. And there’s not much we can do about it.

In our reader’s case, a simple misunderstanding over a small amount of money has escalated to a lawsuit where he has only two choices. He can hire his own attorney to fight the mechanic’s exaggerated claim, in which case he will easily incur fees with his own attorney that will exceed the amount of the dispute, or he can submit to the extortion and pay the claim to make it go away.

This abuse of the legal system cannot exist without the assistance of an attorney to facilitate the mechanic’s behavior, but I am sorry to say that those attorneys do exist and they are more than willing to play this game. With that “rant” more or less set aside, let’s take a look at our reader’s specific questions.

One of the cornerstones of a maritime lien or any claim against a vessel is that the work must be authorized by the owner or someone with the apparent authority to speak for the owner (such as a hired captain). It get a little complicated if the work in question was actually needed and it provided a substantial benefit to the vessel — but in our reader’s case, where the mechanic left behind a dismantled engine, it’s unlikely that he would be entitled to anything more than the reasonable charge for the inspection or “troubleshooting” that was authorized by the owner.

There is no specific law or rule about multiple invoices for the same job, but multiple invoices will cause a significant problem for the mechanic if the case ultimately goes to trial. Regardless of whether the work was authorized, he will need to provide credible evidence at trial that he has a legitimate claim. Three invoices, providing three different lists of parts and labor, with three different invoice amounts, simply do not provide credible evidence of a legitimate claim. In the end this question can only be answered by a judge or jury, but the outcome is fairly predictable.

Attorneys’ fees are recoverable in civil litigation if a contract provides for an award of fees to the prevailing party in a dispute or if a statute allows for the recovery of attorneys’ fees. We would need to know more about the lawsuit to say for certain one way or the other. But there is no mention of any written contract and there does not seem to be an applicable statute, so it appears that the mechanic’s claim for reimbursement of attorneys’ fees would be denied. We should also note that the attorney may be sanctioned by the court if the judge feels that the claim for attorneys’ fees was frivolous because it was not based on any valid law.

Finally, it’s impossible to say why the mechanic did not simply take this case to small claims court, but that is certainly where it belongs. The small claims court system in California allows for suits by individuals for claims up to $7,500 and by corporations for claims up to $5,000. The parties may not be represented by an attorney in court, and the procedure consumes a fraction of the time and money that would be consumed by a lawsuit in Superior Court. But it is an optional procedure, and a party with a small claim may use the Superior Court system if he or she wishes.

I would love to conclude this article with good news, but I don’t have any. If our reader wants to spend the money to hire an attorney and fight the case in Superior Court, I feel confident that he will prevail on the claim, and he may even persuade a judge to levy sanctions against the attorney for a frivolous claim for attorneys’ fees. But I am also confident that the cost of defense will exceed the value of the case.

In the end, we are probably overdue for change to the system. It may be wise to set a minimum claim amount for filing a claim in Superior Court, where anything below that amount would be required to use the small claims court system. 

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