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Personal Disputes are legal conflicts that arise that do not clearly fit the other chapters. These disputes typically arise from situations in which a person feels unfairly wronged by another and looks to remedy the situation through mediation, arbitration, or filing a small claim. We have lumped these cases into the category of "personal disputes." Examples that may fall under this heading are:

  • A dry cleaner ruins your clothing, drapes, etc.
  • You are attacked and bitten by your neighbor's pit bull.
  • The family across the street has teenage children who regularly throw very loud parties that substantially disturb your peace and quiet.
  • You were treated rudely, perhaps to the point of harassment, by a company representative.
  • You were given a black eye by an angry little league parent when you, as the coach, failed to put his son in as a pinch hitter

Cases such as these, while variant, will typically follow a simple legal principle: one person suffered an injury (either personal or financial) that resulted in a monetary loss, and somebody else was directly responsible for this injury. There are several legal principles on which a personal dispute can be based on.

Negligence

Negligence, in short, amounts to carelessness. Legally, negligence is roughly defined as the failure of a person or persons to take precautions to prevent the occurrence of reasonably foreseeable consequences that may result from a dangerous condition on their property, or under their supervision, given that the person was aware of the dangerous conditions and had ample time to correct it, yet did not.[1] In the case of the neighbor's aggressive pit bull, a plaintiff who was bitten by the dog (and thus suffered some degree of monetary loss, be it time off from work, doctor's bills, etc.) would have to show:

  1. That the neighbors were aware of the fact that the pit bull was dangerous (perhaps because the plaintiff told them or because aggressiveness is common among pit bulls) and had ample time to do something to alleviate the problem.
  2. That they nonetheless did not take reasonable precautions to avoid attacks on neighbors (such as building a fence, tying it to a strong leash, or watching over it).
  3. That, because of their negligence, a reasonably foreseeable consequence of keeping an unrestrained pit bull (i.e. a bitten neighbor) occurred.

Usually, a plaintiff will want to establish a prima facie case of negligence, which will shift the burden of proof to the defendant.

Bailment

Bailment is the legal term for safekeeping. Bailment cases are a specific kind of negligence case. Legally, bailment occurs when one party entrusts a piece of its property to another party, under the assumption that this piece of property will be returned in at least as good as a condition as when it was surrendered.[2] The piece of property may be handed over either for safekeeping or for the performance of a particular service (e.g. tailoring). If the item(s) are not returned in good condition or are not returned at all, one may attempt to get compensation through small claims court. In the case of a plaintiff whose new silk shirt was ruined by a dry-cleaner, the plaintiff would want to establish a prima facie case of negligence by showing:

  1. That the dry-cleaner willingly accepted the shirt for dry-cleaning. A dry cleaning ticket could serve as evidence for the dry cleaner's willing acceptance of the shirt.
  2. That the shirt was in satisfactory condition when it was given over to the dry-cleaner. If the shirt had a stain on it, and was returned with the same stain, then it was technically returned in the same "satisfactory condition" in which it was given to the dry-cleaner. In this case, a person cannot sue for negligence, as the dry cleaner did not do additional harm to the shirt. A dry-cleaning stub (that indicates the condition of the item when it was dropped off) or a witness may help to establish the prior condition of the item.
  3. That the shirt was returned in a damaged condition (or not returned at all). The best evidence is the actual item that was damaged.[3]

If a plaintiff can show that his or her goods were damaged in the defendant's possession, then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to show that he or she did take proper or adequate care of your possessions.

If the bailer (the person who was in possession of the plaintiff's goods) did not knowingly accept responsibility for the items, then the plaintiff is not likely to win a suit against the bailer. For instance, if you mistakenly leave your purse in a restaurant, and find $40 missing from your wallet when you retrieve the purse, you cannot sue the restaurant for negligence, as it never actually "accepted" your property and promised it safekeeping. This type of bailment is called constructive bailment, and liability is often difficult to prove. If, in contrast, you gave your purse to a coat-checker in a restaurant and it was returned to you with $40 missing from your wallet, liability is easier to prove - this type of bailment is called active bailment.[4]

Nuisance

A nuisance is created when one party intentionally engages in actions intended to harass or disturb another, and this disturbance causes the harassed party physical (and/or mental) losses.[5] An "illegal dunner" (who calls to request payment of a debt more often than the laws allow), a neighbor who throws extraordinarily loud parties every weekend or a "stalker" who leaves a plaintiff notes and phone messages twenty times daily, may be creating a nuisance, and could be sued in small claims court (although, in the case of a stalker, a client may wish to seek additional legal restraint against this person). A plaintiff in a nuisance case would have to show:

  1. That the actions of the other party were deliberate and done with an intention to harass. This means a neighbor's smelly garbage (that sits outside a plaintiff's bedroom window) is only a nuisance if the neighbor is aware that he is disturbing the plaintiff and does not correct the problem.
  2. That these actions have substantially diminished his day-to-day enjoyment of life. Explaining why the actions drove the plaintiff to the point of actually filing a small claim should do the trick.
  3. That the actions of the other party were unreasonable (i.e. the benefit to the defendant was significantly less than the cost/nuisance to the plaintiff).
  4. That the plaintiff suffered a monetary loss as a result of the defendant's behavior. Remember, a monetary loss can sometimes be alleged if one undergoes severe mental distress.

Assault and Battery

Assault, in its legal sense, occurs when someone tries to physically harm you in a way that makes you feel immediately threatened.[6] You do not need to be actually hit to suffer an assault. Battery occurs when someone physically contacts you with the intent to harm you.[7] Pointing a gun at you (assault) and then shooting you in the leg (battery), constitutes an "assault and battery". Although assault and battery is a criminal offense, it is also a civil wrong, and thus, if the damages sustained are less than $7,000, a person can sue in small claims court.

Intentional Infliction of Mental Distress

Intentional Infliction of Mental Distress is a specific claim against intentional actions to inflict extreme emotional or mental stress. In order to successfully bring this claim, one must prove:

  1. The defendant intentionally reckless or dangerous
  2. The defendant's actions were outrageous and extreme
  3. The defendant's actions caused the plaintiff distress
  4. Plaintiff suffers severe emotional distress as a result of defendant’s conduct.

The intent of the act need not be to bring about emotional distress. A reckless disregard for the likelihood of causing emotional distress is sufficient. For example, if a defendant refused to inform a plaintiff of the whereabouts of the plaintiff's child for several years, though that defendant knew where the child was the entire time, the defendant could be held liable for IIED even though the defendant had no intent to cause distress to the plaintiff.

The conduct must be heinous and beyond the standards of civilized decency or utterly intolerable in a civilized society. Whether the conduct is illegal does not determine whether it meets this standard. Essentially, the activity must make someone say "That's Outrageous" for it to qualify. Typically this act must also be done in public, gain publicity, or be publicly known.

The emotional distress suffered by the plaintiffs must be "severe." This standard is quantified by the intensity, duration, and any physical manifestations of the distress. A lack of productivity or depression documented by professional psychiatrists is typically required here, although acquaintances' testimony about a change in behavior could be persuasive. An example of an act which might form the basis for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress would be sending a letter to an individual falsely informing the person that a close family member had been killed in an accident.

Breach of Contract

Breach of contract is a legal cause of action in which a binding agreement or bargained-for exchange is not honored by one or more of the parties to the contract by non-performance or interference with the other party's performance. If the party does not fulfill his contractual promise, or has given information to the other party that he will not perform his duty as mentioned in the contract or if by his action and conduct he seems to be unable to perform the contract, he is said to breach the contract.

There are many different types of breaches of contract.

A minor breach is a partial or immaterial breach of the contract that does not actually affect the entirety of the contract. An example of this would be the request that in a plumbing job all pipes be green when in reality the plumber installs blue. If that is simply a request in the contract, then you are entitled to the difference in the cost of what you asked for compared to what you got. In the case of the pipes, since the pipes are the same cost, you would not be entitled to any money.

If a specific request is actually a condition to the completion of the job, then this is a material breach of contract.

A material breach is any failure to perform that permits the other party to the contract to either compel performance, or collect damages because of the breach. If the contractor in the above example had been instructed to use copper pipes, and instead used iron pipes which would not last as long as the copper pipes would have, the homeowner can recover the cost of actually correcting the breach - taking out the iron pipes and replacing them with copper pipes.

A fundamental breach is a breach so fundamental that it permits the aggrieved party to terminate performance of the contract, in addition to entitling that party to sue for damages.

Other Terms

Assumption of Risk

A tactic sometimes used by defendants to explain why they are not liable for a plaintiff's damages. For example, if a skier breaks his leg after getting his ski caught in a large chunk of ice on the slopes, then sues the ski resort for negligence (because they did not keep the slopes in a safe condition), the ski resort may counter that the skier took on an assumption of risk when he decided to go skiing, and thus they are not to be held liable for the injury. While this argument may be persuasive to a clerk magistrate, it is explicitly discouraged by the law in certain cases.[8]

Consequential Damages

The amount of any damages that were sustained by a plaintiff as an indirect result of the actions of the defendant.[9] For example, if a reckless driver crashes into a plaintiff's car, causing it to require $1300 worth of repairs, he may also sue the driver for the $300 he had a to spend on rental cars as a result of having his own car in the shop.

Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment

A covenant of quiet enjoyment is typically an agreement included in a lease agreement that states that the individual has the ability to live in a given location with relative quiet. The covenant of quiet enjoyment typically is included with individuals who have some medical or psychological reason for requiring a quiet living arrangement, but anyone can have it.

Disclaimer of Liability

A defendant may claim that it was made clear to the plaintiff (either on a receipt, a sign, a contract, a coat-check stub, a dry-cleaner's stub, etc.) that he was not responsible should an item be lost or damaged while the item was in his custody. In other words, the plaintiff knew that there was some risk involved in the transaction, and yet agreed to it anyway. In some cases, this will excuse the defendant from liability. However, if the disclaimer is not posted conspicuously (i.e. in a place where the plaintiff would have been expected to see it), or is written in overly fine print, the disclaimer may be deemed invalid. In short, if the plaintiff can prove that he was made unaware of any disclaimer, he may succeed in convincing the clerk magistrate to rule in his favor.

Prima Facie

If a plaintiff is able to prove that another party took on a duty of care (i.e. a dry cleaner took responsibility for a shirt), that he breached that duty (i.e. the cleaner ruined the shirt), that this breach of duty was the proximate cause of damages to the plaintiff, and that a monetary value can be placed on these damages, then a prima facie case of negligence has been established. Once this occurs, then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant, who must now explain why he should not be held liable for the damages.[10]

Punitive Damages

Civil courts can sometimes award punitive damages - money awarded to the plaintiff that is above and beyond the direct, consequential and/or mental damages that he as actually sustained. A plaintiff cannot seek punitive damages in small claims court.

Reasonableness

A standard employed in many small claims cases to determine whether a party is liable for damages. For example, a clerk magistrate may conclude:

"It was reasonably foreseeable that the plaintiff's young child would jump on the defendant's backyard trampoline (perhaps because the plaintiff lived right next door); hence the defendant is liable for the child's injuries."

"The defendant took reasonable precautions to ensure against a trampoline injury (i.e. he erected a fence between the two properties, or warned the plaintiff to watch his child carefully when playing outside); hence the defendant is not liable for the child's injuries."

"The defendant was given a reasonable amount of time to correct the problem (i.e. it had been 6 months since the trampoline was installed, and still the defendant did not erect a fence or issue a warning to the plaintiff); hence the defendant is liable for the injuries."

The standard of reasonableness applies in non-negligence cases as well. In short, it allows the clerk magistrate some discretion in deciding whether or not a claim is legitimate.

References

  1. Negligence: Law Dictionary, Law.com online law dictionary
  2. Bailment Law and Legal Definition, USLegalForms.com
  3. Insurance and the Legal Process, a Bested.com Study Guide
  4. Bailment: Law Dictionary, Law.com online law dictionary.
  5. Nuisance: Law Dictionary, Law.com online law dictionary.
  6. Assault:Law Dictionary, Nolo.com online law dictionary.
  7. Battery: Law Dictionary, Nolo.com online law dictionary.
  8. M.G.L. c. 231, § 85
  9. M.G.L. c. 106, §2-715
  10. Everybody's Legal Dictionary, Nolo.com LawCenter Dictionary

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