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  • Writer's pictureBret "Recovering Lawyer" Thurman

Endgame: The Justice Court Hearing

Over the last several weeks, we have (hopefully) helped you build a strong foundation for your home warranty claim. Now that we are in the home stretch, it is time to complete your building project. We have repeatedly emphasized that preparation is the key to a successful outcome. But what role does the final execution play? And how does one define a “successful outcome?”

Final Preparations

The day before the hearing, run through your presentation. It may sound trite, but practicing in front of a mirror is often effective. If you can convince a spouse or friend to listen to your presentation and provide feedback, that’s even better.

Also, make sure your route to the courthouse is planned out. Know how to get there, where to park, and the exact location of the courtroom. Then, put everything aside. Do not think about your case for at least several hours. If it is not ready by this time, there is no way to make it ready. Instead, trust your preparation and take a deep breath. You’ll need the energy, and the additional perspective, in the morning.

Speaking of that morning, dress about one level above your normal attire. Do not wear a James Bond Saville Row suit, and do not wear shorts. Wear something in between.

Settlement Negotiations

As we hinted at the beginning, a “successful outcome” could mean various things. By this time, your case is probably solid enough to win. But anything can happen at trial. That’s why about 95 percent of civil cases settle out of court. The percentage is lower in Justice Court cases, because the process is more informal.

Nevertheless, there is an old saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. That’s generally true in life, and almost always true with regard to court cases.

The exact procedure varies in different courts. Most judges call the case, speak briefly to the parties, then instruct them to negotiate. If these negotiations do not bear fruit, there is a hearing later that day.

Success in these negotiations usually means knowing when to compromise and when to stand firm. Assume your home’s HVAC system broke down, your home warranty company refused to cover the loss, and you spent $5,000 on a new system. Before you start talking, have a settlement figure in mind, based on the strength of your evidence and the strength of the home warranty companies’ defenses, if any. A split-the-difference approach is usually a good bottom line settlement figure. So, do not lead with $2,500. Offer to settle for about $3,500 and then go down if you have to.

The Hearing

At least informally, most justice court judges give plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt. Unless a provision in the insurance contract clearly allows the company to deny coverage, most judges order the company to pay damages. And, if such a provision existed, you probably would not have gone this far. So, you have every reason to be confident.

Remember to refer to the judge as “Judge” or “Your Honor.” Avoid saying sir or ma’am. Also, contrary to popular myth, some emotional expressions are okay. Feel free to roll your eyes or shake your head when the other side tries to make a point. Just do not go over the top.

Furthermore, do not worry if you are not a good public speaker. No one expects you to be Clarence Darrow. Be respectful, use complete sentences, and you will be fine.

When the hearing ends, if you lose, leave straightaway. Do not try to be civil to the other side and do not be a sore loser either. If you win, go to the clerk’s office to determine the next step. That next step is usually obtaining a written judgement.

You should have no problem enforcing a judgement against a home warranty company. These people know when they are defeated. However, if you have problems, be sure you talk to a lawyer. Enforcing a judgement is a highly technical process.

If you have diligently prepared, the hearing is the easy part. You’ve got this.

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