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The one with all the litigation

In The One With the Tea Leaves, there’s a scene where Rachel points her to her baby-buying boss that she is ‘not litigious’. Twice. When I first saw that back in 2002, I don’t think I even knew what the word litigious meant, for us Brits are not a litigious society. Right?

Fat-arsed, SUV-owning, drive-thru-everything and gun-toting America. I’ve rattled through most of the American stereotypes here on the iBlog over the last 23 months (it’ll be two years in two weeks’ time) but one that I’ve never mentioned before is that they like to get their lawyers involved and sue each other. No need to mention it, because I hadn’t experienced it … until now.

Back at the end of March, I bought a car here. A cheap ($2500) Ford Taurus which had high mileage on it, but I figured would last me a few months to get me around Charleston. My circumstances changed recently, meaning that a bike would no longer suffice and I had to morph a tiny step further to become proper-American-like by getting a four wheeled device instead.

Ford TaurusThe problem was that after two weeks, it broke down. Big-time. The generic engine warning light turned out not to be a simple thing, and for $350 a service engineer took the car apart and told me that it basically needed a new engine and with parts & labour involved it was going to cost me $5000 to get it fixed – twice what it had cost me in the first place. Their advice? … was to scrap the car.

The interesting thing was that in the small number of days that I’d had it, I still hadn’t gotten round to going down to the DMV (DLVA) and registering the car in my name. So the title was still in the name of the person that I’d ‘bought’ it off, and the license plate still physically attached to the car too was also theirs.

So with a whole pile of crap going in my life at the moment, I now had the additional hassle of renting a hire car, buying another one, and getting rid of & scrapping the one that had now flunked out on me.

Then it occurred to me that the reasonable, nice, human thing for the person whom I’d bought it off to do was for them to sort it out for me. It would be the least that they could do – Right? – considering that they had $2,500 of my money in their bank account for a car which crapped out on me two weeks later. They should be grateful that I was prepared to write that money off and not try and get some of it back off of them.

So I sent the person involved an email, explaining all this – the car was still registered to them anyway – as if I’d have dumped it somewhere and the cops picked it up, it would be their name that would come up on the system, and perhaps they could use $100 of that two-and-a-half-thousand that I’ve given them to arrange to scrap it – hell, they might even make some money from the scrap dealer. I figured it could be the least that they could do, and thought through that if the situation was reversed, I would feel bad, offer to help that person out and certainly arrange to deal with a car that was still legally in my name.

Ah, but no. Because this is my American life. And stereotype America rules!

And so I was quite staggered to get an email reply the next day off of the person’s lawyer, instructing me not to communicate with the person anymore, to talk to them instead and with the instruction that ‘their client’ was not prepared to deal with the disposing of the car. Oh for fuck’s sake. How ridiculous can you get?

So I replied back – quite politely – pointing out that as I wasn’t chasing them for the money, but instead just asking them to use a small amount of it to get the car scrapped, that it would be nice, humane and most sensible thing to do.

The next day – an email back from the lawyer, with a form attached which they wanted me to sign, declaring that if they did scrap the car then I would not hassle them anymore about it (i.e. chase them for any or all of the $2500 that I originally gave them).

I let out a big sigh and wondered what the world was coming to, when this all could have been sorted out quite amicably. Without any legal bods whatsoever having to get involved, and faxed them the form back.

But it did make me stop and think – was I being unreasonable? Should I really expect that person to do the nice thing? Is this what the world is really coming to? Where people can’t be bothered anymore but they just get some flunkie to officiate all their business for them because they haven’t got the balls to sort it out themselves?

Also, I’ve come to realise that Charleston is quite a small place really. And at some point in the future over the next few months I fully expect to bump into the person that I bought the car off, which will lead to an unnecessary awkward moment that was avoidable if they’d had a shred of decency about them and not gone and run and hid behind the cover of their lawyer.

So it’s a litigious experience to add to my American tally which I find terribly sad and will be one of the things that will stick in my mind when in the future (sooner or later) I’m back in England and my friends will ask me the question “So – what’s living in America like then?”.

12 responses to “The one with all the litigation”

  1. Paul Webb says:

    This kind of thing is a downward spiral – everybody is so worried about getting sued by somebody else that they get lawyered and insured up to the hilt to protect themselves, and at the slightest provocation the system kicks in, and the lawyers take over and line their pockets.

    Don’t be too hard on the vendors as they were probable scared of being sued by you for selling you a dodgy car.

  2. jj says:

    sounds like a total wanker.

    that said, even the wreck of the Taurus is worth money. especially since it’s not actually wrecked.

    i’d suggest calling around to salvage yards (Blue & Gold, Livingston’s, etc.) and see if any of them will buy the car. if nothing else, they’ll usually dispose of the carcass at no charge to you.

  3. joan says:

    I can’t agree with your thinking here.

    Isn’t getting a cheap car part of the accepted risk in buying a high mileage used car? You get it for less because odds are it is more likely to break down. Everyone knows that and hopes they are lucky.

    Buying from an individual rather than a company means accepting the risk of not having a guarantee. Those are both things we are willing to do when we need a quick, cheap vehicle. I’ve done it and then been told I needed to put $3,000 into a car the seller believed was running well. I was stunned but didn’t consider blaming him. I never told him since he sold it in good faith.

    I’m a nice person but when I sell something I consider it sold. Unless he deliberately hid something I would think it was very unfortunate but not the seller’s responsibility and I would be a bit shocked that a buyer would think I should still be responsible for bad luck. Big car companies can pull off guarantees but not individuals.

    Different way of looking at things but if people felt the way you describe, how could we feel safe selling anything used without lawyers to protect the seller? You should buy your next car from a dealer.

    Meanwhile – sorry for your bad luck. It sucks. I’ve been there.

  4. julia says:

    Look on the brightside. They probably had to spend even more of your $2500 to get their lawyer to write to you.

  5. geofftech says:

    i should point out that this person wasn’t a complete stranger to me – friend of a friend sort of thing. so you’d expect more.

    and there wasn’t even an ‘Oh my gosh, how embarrassing i’m sorry’ kind of email response –nope! it was straight to the the lawyer. which is a very sad indictment on the state of the society here, and the reason why the USA is labeled with that stereotype.

  6. geofftech says:

    And i’ve just been told that it’s not ‘The one with the tea leaves’, it is in fact ‘The one with Rachel’s inadvertent kiss’. dammit. and i thought i was a friends geek.

    Rachel: Now you’re probably going to hire one of the people who did not ah,
    (She puts her hands on his desk blotter and he moves it. Rachel
    then doesn’t know where to put her hands.) who did, who did not
    umm, yell at you and storm out, and I think that’s a big mistake
    and here’s why. I made a huge fool of myself and I came back, that
    shows courage. When I thought you wanted sex in exchange for this
    job, I said no. That shows integrity. And, I was not afraid to
    stand up for myself and that shows courage. (Suddenly realizes
    that she said courage twice.) Okay umm, now I know I already said
    courage, but y’know you gotta have courage. And umm, and finally
    when I thought you were making sexual advances in the workplace,
    I said no and I was not litigious. So there you go, you got, you
    got (counts them off with her fingers) courage, you got integrity,
    you got (Pause) courage again, and not litigious. Look Mr…

  7. Lucia says:

    As Bill Bryson once put it:

    “Americans, as is well known will sue at the drop of a hat. in fact, i daresay someone somewhere has sued over a dropped hat and won $20 million for the pain and suffering it caused”

  8. Mum says:

    I think you should have counter-sued the seller for selling a rubbish car. I’m sure in England there’s some law that allows you to get redress if they sell you a duff motor. Having said that, you have just learned one of life’s greatest experiences:- ‘If it seems to good be too true, then it probably is’, and the old latin saying ‘Caveat Emptor’.If you bump into this person, will you say something? Could you you tell loads of people so they get embarrassed?

  9. […] Geoff is dealing with cars and lawyers: Back at the end of March, I bought a car here. A cheap ($2500) Ford Taurus which had high mileage on it, but I figured would last me a few months to get me around Charleston. My circumstances changed recently, meaning that a bike would no longer suffice and I had to morph a tiny step further to become proper-American-like by getting a four wheeled device instead. […]

  10. Richard says:

    Some people are nice and some people are arses. It’s just a bit of bad luck that you bought your car off one of the latter.

  11. Chris says:

    I think that if the seller *knew* the car was knackered, but sold it to you as though it was OK, you could sue and get some of your money back. It’s called withholding material facts. Whether it’s worth the heartache or not is another matter. Ultimately though your Mum is right (d’oh!) Caveat Emptor – it’s up to you to be sure that what you’re buying is worth what you’re paying for it. Only if the seller misled you or lied do you have any redress. If they genuinely didn’t know the car was knackered then it’s just your bad luck that it conked out just after you bought it. Shame. It’s different if you buy from a company – they have to ensure the item is accurately described and the onus is on the seller to know the condition of what they are selling. Then if they describe it as ‘good condition’ say, and it turns out to be in ‘crap condition’ you are entitled to a refund.

  12. Paul Webb says:

    If you really want to know how to handle an overly litigious person the case of Arkell v. Pressdram provides excellent precedent:

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