DRC_Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

The Watchdog stayed out of Dallas’ new “tornado alley” for a week because I didn’t want to get in the way. The other day, I went to Preston Road and Royal Lane, but didn’t stay long.

Most certainly, I was in the way. It’s a beehive of workers’ activity. Streets are packed tight with debris. No room for tourists.

The destruction hurts your heart. I hope and pray that nobody takes advantage of storm victims. I wish that those whose homes and businesses have been fully or partially destroyed know that the worst is over and that no one will hurt them.

But — and this is where I share the latest news — if someone does hurt them, a wonderful new tool has been bestowed upon all Texans to beat back the bad guys. This new development has received almost no public attention.

When you hear what it is, you’ll quickly see that it can only help people who need help.

In one simple paragraph buried in a larger law about the court system, it states that the amount someone can sue for in justice of the peace small claims court will double from $10,000 to $20,000.

This doubling of the amount that you can sue for without a lawyer in the “people’s court” is a tremendous plus for consumers.

How come?

Inflation makes it tougher to bring a case in small claims. The last time the threshold amount was changed was about 20 years ago, when it jumped from $5,000 to $10,000, Midland County Justice of the Peace David M. Cobos says.

A $3,000 car wreck from a few years ago is now a $7,000 car wreck, he says.

Cobos, former president of the Justice of the Peace and Constables Association, fought for the increase in Austin.

“We feel like we’re the people’s court,” he says. “We want to give the public greater access rather than having to go hire an attorney and go to county or district court.”

Victims of contractor scams will benefit greatly.

With inflation, homeowners may lose $10,000 to $20,000 after signing up for home repairs with a less-than-honorable contractor. In the past, they’d be shut out of small claims. They’d need a lawyer to represent them properly in a higher court. No more.

Contractor scams, Cobos says, “are real prevalent, especially in this economy in West Texas. Oh my gosh. My caseload here has gone up because of that. Instead of buying a house, a lot of people get their homes remodeled.”

Or try to, at least.

No lawyer needed

The best reason to use small claims court is that you don’t need a lawyer. Filing a case usually costs around $200 — and if you win, the other side might have to pay. Plus, the rules of evidence are easier than in a higher court: You tell your story and prove it with documents, photographs, recordings, witnesses, whatever.

A few years back, the rules in small claims court were loosened to make it less lawyer-like for us non-lawyers.

In fact, the rules seek to ban certain lawyer tricks and traps that may work in higher courts. It’s supposed to be people-friendly.

Small claims court judges deal with financial losses from bad purchases, broken contracts, car-towing mishaps, debts, landlord-tenant battles and other disputes.

Discovering new laws

The Watchdog enjoys finding obscure state laws that haven’t received much attention.

So far this year, I’ve discovered several gems.

Now we have one that will help Texans recoup financial losses. Senate Bill 2342 — which includes the small claims changes — is good news.

Only one problem: It doesn’t take effect until next September.

Can’t come soon enough.

How to file a small claims lawsuit

Visit any Justice of the Peace office in your home county.

Learn to search for the “registered agent” of the entity you want to sue through the Secretary of State’s office in Austin.

File the suit and pay to have it served on the other party.

Prepare your case with evidence including documents, photos, recordings, videos and witnesses.

A lawyer is not required. But if you hire one to represent you, that’s acceptable.

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