Small Claims Court: What Car Wash Managers Should Know

Small Claims Courtroom

In many parts of the country the limits on small claims suits are continuing to rise even as the cost to file suit remains low, making small claims an attractive option for many who feel that a car wash has caused harm to their vehicle. If you own or operate a car wash it is likely that at some point in the future you may receive a summons to defend yourself in court. With that in mind, here are some things car wash owners or managers should know first.

The Process

Small claims suits are always initiated by a plaintiff against a defendant. In a situation where a car wash is sued for allegedly causing damage to a vehicle, the car wash (as a business entity) is the defendant. The plaintiff will visit a courthouse, file papers, pay a fee, and get a court date. Following this, papers are dispatched to your wash either via the Post Office (Certified Mail), the local sheriff’s department, or a third party process server.

These papers will contain the name of the plaintiff, your car wash company and registered agent listed as the defendant, and the date, time, and location of the trial. The papers will also have instructions regarding the return date – the date before which you, the wash owner or a legal representative, are REQUIRED to return in court to file an appearance with the Clerk’s office. If you do not file an appearance, you forfeit the case and the defendant will be awarded the full amount claimed.

Once you file your appearance you will also be required to appear before the court on the trial date (typically 14 days after the return date) at which point you will face the plaintiff and argue your case. Note that if either party is absent at the trial, the case is decided against them by default.


In many courthouses all small claims cases first go through a process called mediation. You and the plaintiff will be taken to a private room with a mediator (a professional employed by the courthouse or a trained volunteer) who will attempt to have the two of you come to an agreement privately. If the dispute is not resolved in mediation the case will proceed to trial and you will both have turns to speak before the judge.

Have Documentation!

In small claims the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff. They must be able to PROVE that your car wash caused damage to their vehicle. Therefore, your best defense is to prove that it did not. This should be accomplished with the use of various precautions, including:

  • High Definition Wash Cameras capable of offering a detailed evaluation of a vehicle’s condition as it enters the car wash, preferably in ultra-high resolution and arrayed to provide multiple angles. Place camera sets at both the entrance and exit of the wash.
  • Wide Angle Car Wash Bay Cameras to prove that nothing out of the ordinary occurred during the wash in question.
  • Damage Claim Forms and Procedures, which can demonstrate to the judge that you take customer care seriously and that there was an alternate path to resolution outside the legal process. If the customer did not take advantage of this procedure it may weaken their case considerably.
  • Relevant Information, especially detergent specifications, equipment schematics, and maintenance schedules to demonstrate WITH DATA the professionalism and safety precautions built into your wash’s operation.
  • Clear Entrance Signage establishing prohibited vehicles or accessories that should not be taken through the wash, as well as your policy on liability.

The Trial Itself

Be aware that small claims courts are run “fast and loose” and the actual trial may not take long. Present your evidence quickly and clearly (using portable technology if you have video evidence) and remember to address the judge as ‘sir’ or ‘your honor’. Because small claims courts typically operate ‘Pro Se’ or without lawyers, it may be up to you to, politely, ask questions of the plaintiff regarding their claims. In particular, be sure to ask about the dollar amount they are requesting to cover the repairs and whether they received that amount from a repair shop, estimate, or some other way, and whether they closely inspected the damaged area both immediately before and immediately after the alleged damage.

Remember, you and the plaintiff will be under oath during this process. Speak the whole truth. Once you have both spoken your peace, the judge will make a decision and you will be dismissed.

If You Lose: Resolve it Quickly

If, for whatever reason, the case is decided against you (or you fail to appear and receive a default judgment) it is vitally important that you pay that debt. Once a small claims decision has been made it is very difficult to overturn and you (generally) only have thirty days to resolve the debt before the plaintiff is able to go to the court and request legal help with collections – none of which you want to experience.

Note that the debt will include any legal fees the plaintiff paid during the process, and legally the full amount is ALREADY considered the rightful property of the plaintiff. They have no reason to negotiate with you regarding the award once a decision is made. After the thirty days is up they will also be able to sell the award to a collections agency who will pursue it relentlessly, or the court will help them by launching collections proceedings which will add extra costs to the award, damage your credit, result in more appearances, and which may possibly even result in an arrest and contempt of court if further summons to resolve the case are ignored.

Once a decision is made, it is ALWAYS best to resolve it as quickly and completely as possible!

Most Importantly: Avoid Small Claims in the First Place!

Legal proceedings of any kind are stressful, exhausting, and expensive in terms of fees and time. The process can take anywhere from two months to a year, depending on the particular circumstances of proper service or the particular motions filed. In a very real way, there are no true winners.  This is why every car wash should have procedures and policies in place to prevent a small claims action from ever occurring.

When a situation crops up, regardless of a customer’s demeanor or the potential audacity of their claims, employees should be polite and even friendly, trained to listen to customer complaints and respond quickly and appropriately. Damage forms and procedure should be in place and accessible in order to streamline the reporting process and make an aggrieved customer feel heard and respected at every stage of the process. Once collected, evidence should be clearly presented by an authority figure (manager or owner) in a calm and respectful way—all in order to defuse what could become a very damaging situation, before it escalates.

And it should go without saying, if your wash really is at fault, responsibility should be taken and you should do whatever it takes to make the situation right and prevent it from happening again in the future.

Of course there are always bad actors, and it is impossible to resolve and de-escalate every difficult situation. But working hard to give every single customer a consistently positive experience can and will help resolve problems outside of small claims and prevent equally harmful occurrences such as negative online reviews or damaging consumer reports.

Visit Tommy Car Wash Systems today for exciting car wash site planscar wash parts and components, high-performance car wash detergents, and more. Our team is waiting by to help fellow car wash professionals and developers build a new generation of innovative express car washes and we would love for you to be a part of it!

Tommy Car Wash Systems

Disclaimer: This post’s author is not a legal expert nor should any of the information above be construed as legal advice. This content is offered for informational use only. Only a licensed attorney is qualified to provide legal advice, particularly as pertinent details of small claims court proceedings and practices may vary across county or state lines.

9 thoughts on “Small Claims Court: What Car Wash Managers Should Know

  • September 18, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    We have a semi automated full service hand wash in New York. Our attendants always check that the windows and sunroof are closed whether it’s our responsibility or not. The other day we put a car through the tunnel. The attendant could not see the sunroof was barely open as it appeared to the naked eye it was closed. The interior of the car was slightly wet which we immediately dried. The customer left and came back 20 minutes later claiming that his touch screen was not working properly because of the slight water which got into his car. When we’d initially dried the interior the few areas that were wet were not close to his touch screen. It is evidently an electronic issue. Am I responsible for repairing or replacing his touch screen? Should the client have completely locked his sunroof before exiting his car?

    • September 19, 2019 at 2:19 pm

      Hi Scott,
      We aren’t lawyers. In our express tunnels, where the customer stays in the vehicle, they would be responsible. In a full service wash, where the vehicle is in your care, the situation may be different. We hope you can resolve the situation, provide some good customer service, and use it as a worthwhile learning and training opportunity.

      • September 19, 2019 at 2:49 pm

        Thank you.

  • June 26, 2017 at 2:35 am

    I was at a busy car wash today and saw one of their staff drive a customers BMW 750 and manage to curb a wheel. A supervisor was called very quickly but interested in how you would handle such a situation?

    • June 26, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      Depending on the state and applicable laws one would need to determine which party’s insurance covers the damage. We aren’t lawyers and can’t make ruling, but situations like these are one of the reasons our company specializes in exterior tunnel washes where the customer remains inside and in control of their vehicle throughout the wash process.

  • October 12, 2016 at 8:57 pm

    I would like to know how car wash owners handle incidents where the car wash is damaged by a customer. For example: You have signs posted that clearly state “No Ladder Racks or Bike Racks Allowed” , and someone goes in with a rack, brushes get stuck, and bends a shaft and or other damages. Now your car wash business comes to a complete halt. Down for a day or two, and you have to repair it….this can easily cost you 5K.

    • October 14, 2016 at 1:55 pm

      Hi Rich,
      First and most important is prevention- making sure your attendants are monitoring each and every vehicle going into the wash and stopping problems before they start. Putting up signage like you mentioned to warn drivers.
      If, however, something does happen a wash owner would stop the equipment, get the driver’s licence plate and insurance information, and use the evidence collected with their camera system to file a claim against the driver’s insurance. If the driver has violated policy and caused damage, they are at fault.

      • October 14, 2016 at 7:36 pm

        I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my question. Thanks so much.

  • August 24, 2016 at 6:23 pm

    This is a very helpful post.


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