Legal eagles and real estate types, I need your help and advice

A few months ago, here in NYC, the superintendent of a nearby apartment building toppled my motorcycle which was legal parked outside the front entrance of the building where he works. He and the doorman righted the bike. In the process of toppling+righting, the bike sustained about $170 in damages.

When I confronted the toppler in a letter, he wrote back, admitting he tipped the bike and agreeing to pay for its repair.

Well, big surprise, the prick has reneged on the deal! He has ignored by letters and phone calls asking for reimbursement.

Now, I know I can try to sue him in small claims court. But I went down that road a few years ago with another deadbeat who stalled, sidestepped and evaded me like crazy; I finally got my money but it was after expending huge amouts of time, effort and grief. I suspect that this guy will be just as slippery – all for far less $$$ than my first case.

So I want to try another strategy: I want to sue (or threaten to sue) the management of the building where he and the doorman work. Can’t the building be held liable for the damage its employees do? I figure that once the building management sees that they’re being threatened with a law suit for a measily $170 they’ll turn the screws on the super to pay me – like he said he would – and make me go away.

If this is a viable course of action, to whom do I direct my calls/letters/summones? For what it’s worth, I know it is a co-op building.

Disclaimer: tho IAAL, I am not your lawyer and am not a very good lawyer.

I’d rather not get into too many details about agency law, but you might well have a case. Relevant facts will include whether the super and doorman were working at the time, and whether they were engaged somehow related to their official duties instead of (one of my fave legal terms) detour and frolic! My suggestion, instead, would be to write the bldg mgmt a letter, including a copy of the letter the super acknowledged his responsibility.

And if that doesn’t work, IMO - unless you are absolutely broke, $170 is not worth the time, effort, and aggravation of a lawsuit.

You could do that. And you could sue George Bush if you so desired.
But two things will happen when you try to sue someone you know isn’t responsible.

  1. You waste their time and money defending themselves.
  2. They pull the actual person who damaged your bike into the suit anyway, thus getting you back to where you should have been before trying to sue the apartment building.

Enderw24, why are you so certain that the building management isn’t responsible? If the super, say was painting a fire escape over the sidewalk, and dropped a paint bucket on my head as I was strolling by, are you saying I’d have no recourse against the building management for whom the super works?

There’s a chance the building management is responsible, but it’s a very complex issue. (It depends on the concept of “scope of employment,” which is very fact-specific.)

My advice is to talk to a lawyer. No, I’m serious. You can probably find an attorney who will spend a half-hour drafting a letter to this guy and to building management. There’s a good chance one of them will pay up at that point to avoid the hassle of a suit, and after paying the lawyer you’re still $100 better off than you are today. Of course, the lawyer himself is the one who can offer the best advice on a course of action, but don’t assume that just because the amount is so low, that an attorney is automatically out of reach.


im with dinsdale. send out a letter with a copy of his reply admitting guilt. write it yourself. if you pay a lawyer 1/2 hour to do it, you are going to break about even, so why bother?

if he don’t pay up, contact your local red and whites :wink:

Well, I don’t think the issue is terribly complex, but we need to know more about the facts. How’d the bike get tipped over?


There’s got to be a number of law schools or law libraries within your vicinity. If you feel like taking the time, I’d go to one and hunt around in the New York statutes (law librarians are generally helpful people). Most state code books have a topical index as the last volume. You might flip around in them for anything you think is relevant: automobile law, landlord/tenant liability, etc. You might try caselaw by looking in the New York digest, but that’s generally harder to figure out. (I say that as a caveat: reading law takes a trained mind.)

I’d look it up FOR you, except that I’m in the thick of finals. (If you can wait until after the 10th, I’d be happy to make a quick search for you.) Anyway, once you have the relevant law, stick it right under his nose. Legal proof of liability generally frightens people into paying up. At an initial glance, however, your case seems cut-and-dried: you did nothing illegal and he admitted to liability. Whether or not he “reneged” is irrelevant: tort liability is independent of whether someone agrees to pay.

I’m certainly not going to say the apartment complex is NOT responsible. For all I know, it might very well be directly responsbile.
My gut feeling is that it isn’t. The difference between your paint example and the OP is that, while painting, the super is injuring you while performing his job for the apartment.
He wasn’t performing any activity while outside; he just happened to be walking along. He wasn’t “the super,” he was just joe schmoe.

But if you believe in good faith that the apartment complex should be held accountable, then go ahead and write a letter. I’m not advising for or against any action.


This is all true, but sort of irrelevant to the main question, which is whether STUY can dun the hotel for the actions of its employee. The question is therefore not one of liability but one of respondeat superior. IME this isn’t a tough question but it depends on what the guy was doing at the time he knocked the bike over. Was he acting within the course and scope of his employment, or was he screwing around? I don’t think STUY has told us enough for us to determine whether the hotel should be blamed.

If the guy was on the job and acting within the course and scope of his employment, then IME it would be absolutely appropriate to write his employer and say “Look, this guy works for you; he was at work; he damaged my bike; now he won’t pay and I’m looking to you to take care of this.” If, OTOH, the guy was not acting within the course and scope of his employment, and STUY doesn’t really believe there’s any actual basis to hold the hotel responsible, and he just wants to write the letter to get the guy in trouble with his bosses and put pressure on him, then I don’t think the letter should be written.

In any event, I don’t think you start with threats to sue. I would start with a letter to the guy saying, “You admitted you did this. Now pay me or I’ll take it up with the co-op board.” If he still doesn’t pay, then I’d send a letter to the co-op board as set forth above (“He works for you; he did this; he admits it; I’m looking to you to take care of it.”) If you get no joy there, then you have to consider how far you’re willing to go for 170 clams. But as a rule I think it’s a very bad idea to threaten to sue people you don’t actually intend to sue, and an even worse idea to try to extract money from parties you, in your heart of hearts, don’t really think are responsible. As a lawyer, either will very quickly reduce your credibilty to zero, and neither is an ethical position for a non-lawyers to take, either. All IMO, of course, and not intended as legal advice.

Legal action for $170? You make me laugh.

Whoops. My fault in not fully reading the OP. I’ve got a Negotiations final in 10 hours. :slight_smile:

Hmmmm…I see your point, although I wonder if it’s even necessary to bring in a 3rd party, the co-op board (particularly where this may get the guy fired…and angering him even further. Plus, unemployed people are more likely to be judgment-proof.) Still, I wasn’t necessarily advocating that he should threaten to sue, so much as to show that he wouldn’t have a legal defense at all. It lets him come to the logical conclusion that if Stuy DID sue, there’d be no way to defeat it. In fairness, though, it should be made clear that he doesn’t necessarily intend to sue, but only that he’s got the option, the power, and the facts on his side.

I’m under the impression that you’re a lawyer, and not just a lowly law student like me, so I bow to your superior wisdom. :smiley:

Well, RES, the balance of my post wasn’t directed specifically at you, but just reflected my advice – and as we all know, free advice is worth what you pay for it.

Good luck with your exams. :slight_smile:

Thanks one and all for your input thusfar. A couple of points to address:

To Muffin and anyone who thinks that my threat to sue is an idle one, it absolutely is not. As you probably all know, this is exactly what small claims court is all about. And, as I wrote, I’ve gone down that road before; it wasn’t fun, but I’m willing to go down it again.

As to whether Mr. Super was on the job or not, I can not say for certain – I was not a witness to the act. The doorman, I assume, was on the job at the time.

Oh, and Jodi, for what it’s worth, it’s not a hotel; it’s an apartment building. Actually, a co-op building, I think.

I love all the legal comments I’m getting here (…and please do keep it coming…), however I’d love to know a little more about the real estate issues. For example, how do I learn who owns/manages the building? The county clerk??? And let’s say it’s a corporation, who do I direct my correspondence to? The president, the whole board, their legal reps, etc.???

Do a title search to find the owner. Identify the manager through discovery.

Do a corporate search to identify the officers, then pick the highest one on the tree.

If you were to sue the building corp you could then attempt discovery, depending on the Court rules (in my jurisdiction discovery is limited to higher court actions so as to try to keep small claims matters in perspective). If discovery is not par for the course, then you could make a motion requesting it – at which point the judge would take a long, hard look at the $150, and then decide if it was worth all the bother of a discovery.

An action for $150 is a waste of the Court’s time and taxpayer’s dollars. If your time is worth so little to yourself, fair enough. Since trivial actions seem to be a hobby of yours, you might wish to take a para-legal or law clerk course dealing with small claims to help you learn about the system and the buttons and levers with which you will need to work.

It is my opinion that people who throw good money after bad in trivial actions would be better off to spend that same effort and money on counselling, or a vacation, or whatever it takes to help them learn to let go and keep things in perspective.

STUY, I’m sorry your bike got dinged, but I respectfully second MUFFIN’s post, and you can put me in his camp as another person uncomfortable giving anyone advice on how to sue for $170.

you don’t have many friends, do you Muffin?

Can’t you do the bike yourself? It can’t be that much work to do yourself if a pro wants $150-170.

Before you can use small claims court, you have to prove that you asked them for the money
& they said no.

Hmmmm…I have to take issue with the idea that it’s a waste to sue for $150. I’m a poor law student–$150 is a significant expenditure for me. But beyond that, he is entitled to the money under basic principles of justice. The guy caused him an injury, ergo, justice demands that he make restitution.

Now, it might be inappropriate if he went directly to court rather than talking to the offending party first. It’s simply better and more neighborly to take matters into one’s own hands (where it’s appropriate to do so). The courts exist when every other reasonable means of redress is impossible. Stuy could go track down the guy’s house and do a comparable amount of damage, such as by smashing a mailbox. But that kind of behavior…well, if not anarchistic, certainly disturbing. Better we go to the courts when there’s nothing more an individual can do.

Or, from another angle: if $150 is too small an amount to take to court, what’s the bright-line minimum? $200? $500? $1000? Small claims courts were specifically created so that people can address these minor greivances, and the law entitles him to do so. Legal inefficency is a problem, but that’s still collateral to telling someone that they can’t have their day in court.

Oh, good lord. That’s needlessly nasty, GP. People have an unfortunate habit of believing that the legal system is there to right every wrong. It isn’t. It’s there for justice, and in calculating justice we bear in mind that there are finite resources in this world. Tying up courts - even small-claims courts - for ludicrously penny-ante cases is wasteful; bear in mind that one of the goods the justice system is there to preserve is its very existence. It is amply justified in telling people that some wrongs they must simply suck up. $150 worth of anything is one of them (and I speak as someone who was, very recently, down to that kind of money).

I do not know if small-claims courts have minimum jurisdictional amounts. I would hope that they do.