Not long ago a powerful yen for a good tongue sandwich sent me to court. Not, however, because there was anything wrong with the sandwich. In fact, I never got it.
Parking alongside my favorite French carry-out, abiding by all known laws, I released my lap belt, cleared myself to the rear and opened the car door. Like expletives from "Batman," there came in quick succession WHAM! Crunch! Scrape! A Metro bus had moved my door five inches closer to the engine.
Reasonably, I thought, especially for a hungry man, I requested that the mishap be investigated by one of the District's finest. He arrived and fined Me $25 for violating "Rules of the Road," Sec. 113: "No person shall open a door of a vehicle on the side where traffic is approaching unless it can be done without interfering with moving traffic or pedestrians and with safety to himself or passengers."
The police officer's interpretation of Sec. 113 was greeted with snorts of disgust when I appealed to the District's Traffic Adjudication Bureau. I had done everything a reasonable person could be expected to do to preclude negligence, said the hearing officer, and I was exonerated from all charges.
So it was that happenstance and a desire to escape the cold, rather than a desire for vengeance, led me to a sign reading "Small Claims," formally the Small Claims and Conciliation Branch of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Within 10 minutes I had paid a $2.40 fee and filled out a form filing suit against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for $750, the court's legal limit.
My day in court arrived. I sought to prove that a Metro bus had swirled from behind a double-parked delivery vehicle and pranged my Pinto. Judge Harriet Taylor, after listening with astonishing patience for two hours to my plea and the rebuttal of the bus company's attorney, awarded me $1,200 -- then apologized for having to pare the award to $750.
I reached a conclusion from this verdict: It is still possible for a layman to beat the system. Even in Washington. The Small Claims Court may just be the last frontier of justice -- "The Law North of the Potomac" -- harking back to the simpler days when the justice of the peace had the final word.
This is what happens: You sue. You state the cause of your suit. You appear in court and tell the truth. Lawyers are not only unnecessary, but some judges consider them a nuisance, and frequently judges act as surrogate attorneys for parties who know no law. Which is why lawyers often refer to the court as "the zoo," meaning that in the basement of 500 Indiana Ave. NW almost everything goes. To wit, this exchange in a landlord-tenant hassle:
Judge: "And what did this dog do that you found so offensive?"
Tenant defendant: "He smelled."
Judge: "And where did this dog relieve himself?"
Landlord plaintiff: "On the paper, your honor."
Judge: "And where was the paper?"
Plaintiff: "Beside my bed."
Judge: "And what did the dog do, er, on the paper? I mean, was it liquid or solid?"
Plaintiff: "Oh, it was both, your honor -- the puppy is paper-trained."
Three hours later, the judge awarded the plaintiff $59, smelly dog notwithstanding, as reimbursment for the utility bills the defendant had refused to pay. No matter, it seems, is too small, or too messy, for Small Claims Court.
In 1979, the court disposed of 29,043 cases, which would make it appear that a lot of Washingtonians have gotten the message. In fact, in 20,928 of these cases, plaintiffs were represented by lawyers admitted to the District bar -- corporations are required to be represented by counsel in Small Claims Court -- indicating that the court is in reality being used as a cheap collection agency, a weapon known to extenders of credit but not to their debtors. Doubtless, many would-be plaintiffs -- the District residents victimized by merchants, solicitors, shady salesmen and purveyors of snake oil for whom this court seems intended -- are intimidated by the formalities associated with lawsuits.
The truth is that $2.40 won't buy much formality but it will go a long way toward satisfying the most personal injustice. Consider, for example, this case recently before Judge Nicholas S. Nunzio:
The plaintiff brought suit because his "hair weave" was defective. From the bench, Judge Nunzio observed that the plaintiff's hair looked "normal" to him. Whereupon the plaintiff whipped off his Afro wig, disclosing a bald pate. Unfamiliar with the art of hair weaving, the judge asked his clerk for advice. It was a case, you might say, of splitting hairs.