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How to win in small claims court and other lessons I’ve learned

California industry association advice has helped Paul Grech fund his retirement and take on customers who refused to pay for services rendered

Editor’s note: Paul E. Grech owned the former San Franciso shop, Allied Engine & Auto Repair, before retiring. In this column series, Grech shares his experiences as a shop owner.

This month I’m putting pen to paper on two important lessons I’ve learned by going to Automotive Service Councils of California (ASCCA) events and seminars, including the very first one I attended when I came away with the advice to buy my own repair shop building.

Paul Grech

The speaker told us, “He who owns the building has ultimate control of the business.” My eventual purchase allowed me not to worry about any rent increase for 42 years. It also ended up funding my retirement when I found an excellent tenant (a fellow ASCCA member) to rent my building. What’s more, I was advised to be my own realtor — so I found my own tenant, which saved me $100,000 in realtor fees.

Secondly, I learned how to win in small claims court. My first experience was in 1986 after 13 years in business and I sought advice from ASCCA members what I should expect. They all said the same thing — “It’s not who is right or wrong, it’s who can stand the loss; usually, the business being sued.”

Our association lawyer, however, said that’s not necessarily true. “You have to learn to speak to the person conducting the court in a language they understand,” he told me. “He or she usually knows nothing about car repair — only legal jargon.”

So, when I appeared in court for the first time, I stated my case in legal terms. I started by saying, “I am licensed by the state of California to repair automobiles. They are certain rules and regulations I have to follow. I contracted with the consumer to repair his car and I am to perform a certain repair on his car governed by standards set by the BAR, which governs auto repair shops. He is required to pay me for services rendered.”

Long story short, the customer had brought in his car for brake repair. I inspected the brakes and determined it would also need the brake rotors replaced because the brakes were worn down to the steel backing on the pads. The minimum size allowed for the rotors is stamped right on them. I also found that the front tires were worn to the point that wire was protruding from the rubber. It is against Civil Code 22500 to drive a car in California in an unsafe condition.

I fulfilled my part of the contract. Then the customer said his neighbor told him I had charged him too much. Well, I won that one and five more through the years. The bottom line is you have to give the court the information it needs to tell the complainant that he is wrong in a language the judge understands.

Whether you are a shop owner in California or have a your own regional or national association, I strongly encourage you to consider joining one. Not only do they provide excellent training to grow your business, fight for you in the legislature for industry-related concerns, and offer networking opportunities and discounts — membership also pays invaluable dividends and life lessons.

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