The costs of suing

The costs of suing

Even when you know the law is on your side, you might be better off skipping a court date with Lady Justice
May 01, 2010

Using the law against a "little guy"

The circumstances may not be much more encouraging for claims a veterinarian may make against a so-called "small-fry." These are situations in which the defendant is not legally savvy nor well endowed financially. This might be a client with a long-past-due balance or a small service provider such as a snow-plow guy or a contractor who works out of the back of his truck.

Let's use a common example. Client B runs up a big tab with Dr. A (who is still recovering from the huge financial hole created by his noncompete litigation). Still a young practitioner, Dr. A hasn't yet learned the importance of watching his accounts receivables like a hawk.

Dr. A is again faced with two options. He could insist on aggressively enforcing the clinic's pay-as-you-go financing policy. Or, he could choose to let Client B go "just one more time on credit" to the point where she owes $500 she simply has no way to pay. Dr. A is confident that he can use the legal system, if necessary, to make Client B pay the debt, so he picks the second option. Silly doctor.

After still no payments, off to court goes Dr. A. Small claims court is his exclusive route, due to the size of the bill and the overcrowded docket of the court system in his area. Doc shows up and then waits for hours as the other plaintiffs go ahead of him. Finally, his moment arrives.

The other party filed an answer but didn't show up for court! Default judgment? No, the judge feels sorry for her so he sets up another trial date in six weeks. That means Dr. A gets to waste another morning waiting in court instead of doing surgery. For the first time, he considers the possibility that collecting this debt will end up costing substantially more than the value of the debt itself.

Dr. A decides to go for one more round. This time, Client B shows up and loses, because it is clearly a legitimate debt owed. Dr. A walks out of the courthouse feeling vindicated. By George, he has a signed verdict folded neatly in his jacket pocket!

Now what? Doesn't the client have to pay him? Of course! Right after Client B is no longer on public assistance and has satisfied the other $30,000 in debt judgments already against her (all of which stand ahead of Doc A's little small-claims victory).

Life is indeed full of choices — some of which are more expensive than they're worth. Choose well!

Dr. Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call (607) 754-1510 or visit