Now Pending in Alameda County Superior Court
Filing a lawsuit is a pretty easy thing to do, when it comes down to it. I learned this lesson right after law school, when I clerked for a federal judge and spent a year analyzing cases and drafting the judge's orders. Some crazy fringe shit comes in the door of any courthouse every single day. I still recall seeing crank cases brought by foreclosed homeowners invoking things like "vapor money theory" and "unlawful money theory," which is some nonsense notion that if the funds borrowed to purchase property weren't tendered by the bank in silver or gold, there is no debt that must be repaid. In my litigation practice today, I see all kinds of bogus cases filed by people who have a very attenuated hold on reality. A favorite of mine was the self-represented plaintiff who called me last summer about her case, and declared, "Yes, I have no teeth on top. That's my prerogative." She'd personally filed dozens of lawsuits. If these people can manage to start and maintain a lawsuit, so too can you!
When it's time to file a lawsuit, you've got to ask yourself a few questions: Who do I sue? What claims do I make against them? What relief do I seek (i.e., what do I want the court to make them do for me)? Where do I sue?
Who to Sue? I decided to sue both the architect and the MEP. Through the course of my investigation, I'd concluded the MEP was most probably at fault, because it seems to be the party that prepares the plumbing drawings. But the architect was not off the hook. His name was stamped on the offending drawing, right next to the MEP's. He'd recommended the MEP and played a coordinating role between the MEP and the kitchen designer. And he'd tried to deflect blame for the incident away from the MEP and onto us, the client. If the MEP was clearly to blame, the lawsuit would operate as a wedge between the architect and the MEP, increasing the pressure on the MEP to settle.
What's the Claim? The claim here was one for negligence. "Negligence" here is a technical legal term. To succeed on a claim for negligence, the plaintiff needs to prove the defendant owed him a duty of care, breached that duty, and caused the plaintiff's injury. In a case like this, the idea is that an architect owes its client a duty to act within reasonable standards of professional conduct to prevent foreseeable accidents when it makes its drawings. When the architect (or MEP) made changes to the kitchen expert's plumbing drawings without informing anyone, it was absolutely foreseeable that the changes might cause the plumbing to be installed incorrectly. An architect acting reasonably either wouldn't have made the change in the first place, or it would have inquired about whether the change was acceptable. So making the unannounced changed constitutes a breach of the duty of care, and it was the direct cause of our injury.
What's the Relief? In a standard action for negligence--as opposed to an intentional tort--your damages are typically limited to amount of your injury. You can't get punitive damages or damages otherwise in excess of your injury. Here, we sought compensation for the cost of redoing the floor plumbing, plus our court costs.
Where to Sue? For a small case like this one, state court is the likely forum, probably in the county where the injury occurred. Federal court is reserved for actions making federal law claims, or relatively high-value suits between citizens of different states. A plain old negligence suit against a defendant from the same state is a state court matter. Here, because the dollar amount was less than $10,000.00, I was able to bring the case in the Alameda County Superior Court's small claims division. This has advantages over a standard Superior Court civil action. It's easy to file--you fill out a small handful of forms, and your complaint is limited to the space of about 3/4 of a page. You get a resolution quickly, and neither side may be represented by an attorney at the trial.
So with three copies of my complaint and supporting papers in hand, I stopped by the clerk's office in the downtown Oakland branch of the Superior Court. The worst part was waiting in line for nearly an hour so that somebody could take my papers and my $50. Although in federal court (where I greatly prefer to practice) you can start your case online, state court is generally well behind in the times. After the filing, I provided the file-stamped copies to a process server, who performed the task of personally delivering the summons and complaint to each of the architect and MEP. Proper service of process is absolutely essential to commencing any lawsuit, and it's worth paying the nominal amount to have a professional service do it the right way. Once I had confirmation the defendants had been served, I emailed them copies of the papers.