Five Dire Mistakes: A Briefing

I firmly believe in the adage an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Sure there are times when not-so-good things will happen that are beyond your control or prevention but I dare say that many messes can be avoided with some aforethought.  After representing consumers, policyholders, and other wronged persons for over fifteen years here are five of the most common mistakes I see.  Please read this and take action so you may minimize the prospect of not-so-good things happening to you…

1.  Signing documents without fully reading, understanding, and agreeing with what was signed.   This one is particularly common when purchasing or leasing a vehicle or real estate.  Courts routinely rule that a person is held responsible for what she has signed and “I didn’t see that” or “I didn’t understand what that meant” or “they told me something different” may not be a valid excuse.  Ask questions before signing and if the written version does not reflect what you discussed regarding a very important term you may have to walk away from the transaction.  Get it right before you write….and sign. 

2.  Leaving important documents in a vehicle.  This one bears some explanation.  Many people purchase vehicles from used car dealers who have “buy here, pay here” financing.  In other cases payments are often made to a finance company such as Whitestone Financial or North State Acceptance, to name a few.  At some point after the purchase is made a default (ex: failure to make payments), dispute, or “misunderstanding” may occur resulting in the vehicle being repossessed.  Too many times valuable documents (and sometimes personal property too!) will suddenly and unexplainedly disappear from the vehicle.  On more than one occasion I have been unable to adequately review a potential case because the person did not have the relevant documents.

Documents such as the Bill of Sale, Retail Installment Sales Contract, Damage Disclosure Statement, and Odometer Disclosure Statement, payment coupons/statements, and payment receipts, should NEVER be regularly kept in the vehicle.  If you must have these documents in the vehicle try to keep them in a bag or envelope which you take with you.  These documents should be kept at home or another safe place—not the vehicle.  The only documents you really need to keep in the vehicle on a regular basis are your registration card and insurance card.  And NEVER, NEVER, NEVER store your Certificate of Title in the vehicle.  What if it gets stolen?  Or the vehicle catches on fire?  Oh no!

3.  Paying a traffic ticket without being certain of the consequences.   If you get a ticket while traveling out of town it may seem convenient to just mail in payment especially if the law enforcement officer suggested you do so.  It may not be easy or possible to attend the court date or otherwise go in person to resolve the ticket.  If this is your situation you should contact an attorney in or near the county/parish/jurisdiction where you received the ticket and get a reliable assessment of your options for resolving the ticket.  Paying a ticket means pleading guilty to the offense(s) stated on the ticket which can mean points on your driver’s license record and an increase in your insurance rate.  Payment of tickets for certain traffic offenses will automatically suspend your driver’s license.  If you really value your privilege (note it is not a constitutional right) to drive you should consult an experienced traffic attorney to discuss your ticket and the best resolution(s) available for you.

4.  Purchasing a used vehicle without doing due diligence.  “Due diligence” is a term often used in the business world when referring to the investigation and inquiry undertaken by a company or individual before agreeing to make a substantial purchase or transaction.  Everyone looking to purchase a used vehicle would be well-advised to perform due diligence before deciding to make the purchase.  Too many people rely on the salesperson’s statements and/or their own cursory assessment of the vehicle.  Unless you are trained and/or experienced in assessing vehicles do you really know what to look for as you look in and around the vehicle?  If the vehicle is in such great condition is the salesperson willing to put those promises in writing?  Would the salesperson provide a warranty from the dealership or will they try to sell you a vehicle service contract?—-big question and big difference.  Have you run a CarFax report or AutoCheck report?  Have you obtained the vehicle’s VIN and provided it to your insurance agent to see if he/she can check for any damage claims or title issues with the vehicle?

Consider this:  if you are thinking about spending at least $3,000.00 on a vehicle is it not worth a few hundred dollars—often less than $200.00—to hire a mechanic or vehicle inspector—to check out the vehicle and tell you if you are getting a good deal or a lemon?  And also consider this:  if you were to purchase a home, the prospective lender will have the home appraised (what is it really worth?) and you will probably have a home inspection done (what things are wrong with this home and should I still buy and at what cost?).  Since a vehicle purchase is usually the next most expensive purchase people make why do they buy a used vehicle without performing some due diligence?  Especially when they are not getting any warranty from the seller.  (NOTE:  a vehicle service contract or warranty with a third party company/vendor MAY NOT provide you with any rights against the seller if you have problems with the vehicle).  Since North Carolina allows “as-is” sales of vehicles you should be absolutely sure of the vehicle’s condition before you agree to buy it without a warranty.  Bottom line here is saving money on the purchase could cost you later in terms of repairs and headaches….

5.   Representing one’s self in a civil lawsuit in District Court or Superior Court.  You will note I did not mention Small Claims Court also known as Magistrate’s Court in North Carolina.  Click here for a free online guide for Small Claims Court in North Carolina.  Small Claims Court or Magistrate Court in North Carolina involves claims for no more than $5,000.00 and there is a right of appeal upon the magistrate’s ruling.  The appeal means you get a “do-over”; the magistrate’s ruling is null and void and your case would be transferred to District Court….and that is where we begin our discussion.  District and Superior Court can be bewildering and confusing places for the non-lawyer.  The rules and procedure of court, the rules of evidence, how to prepare motions and what motions to file, whether and how to serve discovery requests on the opposition…….these are all neccesary components of properly handling a case in District and Superior Courts.  Judges are not allowed bend the rules and afford leniency to non-lawyers who may not be knowledgable of the relevant rules and procedure.  I have seen too many cases where persons with valid claims, defenses, and counterclaims are unable to stake them and get the proper result.  Instead the person often loses time, money, and property and only gains a sour taste in their mouth regarding the judicial system. 

Consider this:  before one can become a lawyer, one must graduate from law school (a minimum of three years) and pass the Bar exam (two-day exam in most states; three-day exam in some).  Given this how likely is it that a non-lawyer would be able to study and learn all the relevant rules and procedure and be fully prepared to handle and win a case against a licensed lawyer?  Weigh the pros and cons of representing yourself and make the best choice moving forward.  If you have a lot to lose or gain it may be worth consulting a lawyer.  You want a lawyer with experience and a track record of obtaining results for clients.  Note that no lawyer wins every case and “win” can be a relative term.  A key is gaining a sense of trust and comfort with a lawyer and making an informed decision as to how to proceed to make your best case.  Hiring a lawyer forms a partnership in which both partners—lawyer and client—retain responsibility for handling certain parts of the work to be done. Hiring a lawyer may actually save you more than you think…

As Michael Jordan used to say in the Hanes commercials from several years ago, “you’ve been briefed”.  Avoid these and other costly mistakes and best wishes in handling your matters and legal affairs.


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