SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – A growing number of consumers angry about how they’ve been treated by large corporations are fighting back in small claims court, and – if not winning – are at least getting the attention of the companies they’re suing.

John and Julie Neri of San Francisco sued Virgin America in small claims court earlier this year after the two adjacent seats they had booked on a cross country flight had been changed at the last minute.

“He was way in the back of the plane and I was four rows back in a middle seat,” Julie Neri told ConsumerWatch. While the Neris know that no airline seat is ever guaranteed, the believed the carrier lied to them about why their seats had been moved. “(The customer service representative) told us there was a medical emergency,” Julie Neri said.

So, the Neri’s struck back, suing Virgin in small claims court for $4,270, the cost of two first class seats they bought at the last minute so they could be together. John Neri handled most of the paperwork, which he was able to access online.

“I would say the process itself was easy. I did some research online which gave me a lot of the basics.” That included serving the company with an official notice of the lawsuit. “I went through court registered receipt mail,” something he said cost about $15.00

Several months later, the Neri’s got their day in court. But no one from Virgin showed up. So, the Neri’s made their case with no opposition in the courtroom as is often the case with corporations and small claims.

“It’s always better when the other side isn’t there, because they don’t have their story to tell,” said Robert Talbot, law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, and an expert on small claims court cases.

Two weeks later, the Neri’s got a notice informing them that a court had ruled in their favor, and they had been awarded $4,300, including court costs.

“In my mind, I wanted to say this is not right,” John Neri said. Virgin has since appealed the ruling, and another hearing is now scheduled for next month, but in any event, the Neri’s got the airline’s attention.

Virgin said it’s apologized to the Neris and offered them two round-trip, first-class tickets anywhere the carrier flies “in hopes we can ultimately win their business back,” said a Virgin spokesperson.

The carrier also said the Neris were incorrectly informed of the reason for the seat switch.

The Neris aren’t alone. While there are no good figures on the number of so-called “David vs. Goliath” cases, court dockets from all over the Bay Area are filled with cases where individuals are suing big companies.

“The cases are very, very fact specific,” said Talbot. He noted the key to success in court is making a good case. “It’s easy to say something, but look for documents, proof, anything you have that can help the judge take your word for it,” Talbot said.

“It really is the people’s court.”


(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)



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