How to sue your tech vendor -- and win

One woman's war against Adobe shows how preparation and detailed evidence are key to obtaining justice in small claims court

Sometimes taking a big company to court proves to be more than just a hopeless endeavor in frustration, as Gripe Line reader Jake recently found out.

"I resolved a complaint against Adobe by going to small claims court in Massachusetts," Jake wrote in to Gripe Line. Thrilled to hear of her victory, I followed up, asking her how she did it. She was happy to tell us.

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"I argued that the product was not able to be installed and used, and that I had exhausted all the remedies Adobe's technical support offered trying to get it to be usable," Jake replied.

Thinking like a lawyer, she maintained that the software license was null and void.

"Since I was never able to read it or agree to its terms," she explained, "it was not displayed on the exterior of the box, and I was never able to view the license screen because the installer failed to work."

In fact, the remedies suggested by Adobe's technical support desk did such a job on her computer that she had to reinstall the operating system and other software in order to get it working again.

Taking your vendor to court
Anyone with a grevience should find comfort in the fact that the process of taking a vendor to small claims court is relatively easy and inexpensive, Jake reports. Be aware, though, that the procedures vary by state, and you can't just wake up one morning and head to court without studying the law and expect success. You have to go to the mattresses first to pull off what Jake did.

"Each case is very different," explains legal expert Paul Moretti, who offers advice on JustAnswers.com. "It all depends on the evidence the plaintiff has to support their contentions. Just because one person takes on Adobe and wins, doesn't mean someone else will take on Microsoft and win."

Jake confirms Moretti's warning with the nitty-gritty on how she won her case: "I went into court dressed in a business suit. I had copies of my purchase invoice, brought the software in its box, and had printed supporting evidence from the Internet of other individuals having similar problems. I had a written record of every call and email I made to Adobe with names and times. I had also researched the usability product laws and the intellectual property laws since I was sure Adobe would argue that I had a license, not ownership, in the product. The product was not usable as designed and sold, so the usability issue was critical to my argument."

It was certainly her preparation and understanding of the law that won her case, not a tendency of the courts to be understanding. Moretti says it is usually a lack of evidence and preparation that causes individuals to come away with the feeling these cases are impossible to win. "Evidence is the key factor," he says. "Often the evidence people present does not show what they think it does. And they fail to make themselves aware of the rules of evidence so they can introduce any evidence they do have in court."

That's not to say you should give up if you have a case you want to take to small claims. Just take time to sharpen your swords first.

"You need to make yourself familiar with the rules of the court and the civil procedure rules," says Moretti, "because these companies will have attorneys and those attorneys will use the rules of civil procedure to take advantage of your lack of knowledge. And the courts will hold you to the same rules and standards as an attorney. So your biggest opportunity for failure is not knowing the rules and how to operate within them -- for both procedure and evidence."

Know the laws in question -- and be prepared to fight
Before heading off to litigate, be aware that rules can vary from court to court. You can find the rules of civil procedure and rules of evidence for most states at sites such as www.findlaw.com, says Moretti, or at the state's court Websites. But some states' rules are hard to find. You might have to go to your local library and get the law book containing those rules.

Even if you are well-prepared legally, be prepared for hand-to-hand combat. There is a reason they call this legal battle "arguing."

Jake studied up on the laws of evidence and procedures and had lots of evidence. But she still needed the smarts she brings from her own field to stand up to Adobe's lawyer.

"The lawyer for Adobe tried an 'end-user is stupid' argument," she explained. "But he gave that up when he learned I wasn't a lame-brain home computer user. I have a software engineering background and worked for Sun Microsystems and Fidelity Investments tech group."

Was it worth it? Jake is certainly pleased to come out a winner in her fracas with Adobe -- but beyond that?

"The court awarded me my purchase price and other small expenses," she said. "Had I been able to prove business losses or damages, I would have recovered additional money, but I couldn't prove I was out of business for any period of time. Needless to say, I have not bought any other Adobe products. Even opening a PDF makes me nervous!"

I think this is when we all shout, "Huzzah!"

Got gripes? Send them to christina_tynan-wood@infoworld.com.

This story, "How to sue your tech vendor -- and win," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Christina Tynan-Wood's Gripe Line blog at InfoWorld.com.

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