Sometimes you can beat a giant just by showing up

Carol Anne Ryan, a Fort Worth nurse, read a Watchdog column six weeks ago that suggested that if someone didn't like an insurance company's settlement offer for a car accident, they could sue in small claims court.

It made sense to her. So, by herself, she sued Allstate.

Her legal training? She says she watches Judge Judy on television.

Ryan was ticked at the insurance giant because, after her son's car was totaled in an accident, Allstate, which covered the other driver, wouldn't pay $3,000 to replace it. Allstate offered only $1,800.

It wasn't so much the $1,200 difference that bothered her, she told me, as much as it was Allstate's denying full responsibility for the accident.

Last week, she sat in Tarrant County Precinct 6 Justice of the Peace Gary Ritchie's courtroom and fretted. She worried about how to pick a jury and about what questions to ask Allstate. She feared that the Allstate lawyer would throw legal mumbo-jumbo in her face and she wouldn't understand.

Most of all, she kept saying that it was hard for "the little people" to stand up to the big companies. She didn't know if she could do it.

In the weeks before, she tried to keep up as best she could with the paperwork. She read the Allstate lawyer's legal brief ("Wherefore, Defendant prays that Plaintiff takes nothing by Plaintiff's suit against Defendant ...). She saw that Allstate demanded a jury trial. And she answered in her own way.

She sent a certified letter with a return receipt to Allstate's law firm, G. Patrick Collins & Associates in Dallas, and to the lawyer, Glenn W.A. Holley. She reminded Holley of their assigned court date and asked that he make available to her all the evidence he planned to use.

He never answered.

In the courtroom, she looked around for the Allstate lawyer, but he wasn't there. "I don't think they thought I'd take them on," she said, but admitted, "I'm scared now. I have to take on a big corporation."

Potential jury members filed into the courtroom. Judge Ritchie called the nurse to the front table. He asked her how much she was suing for.

She started talking about the case, and how confusing it was. Ritchie patiently let her go on, and when she was done, he asked again. How much did she want?

She answered $3,000. He rapped his gavel, and that was it. Default judgment. Blink and you missed it.

It took another moment for it to sink in before the nurse realized that she won because the Allstate lawyer didn't show up.

"That's it?" she asked the judge.

"That's it."

She turned to the jurors and thanked them.

"Don't thank them," Ritchie said to laughter. "They didn't do anything."

In the hallway afterward, I called the lawyer at his Dallas office to ask why he hadn't attended, and left a voice mail message.

This week, I called and left another message. Then I called the law firm's main number. A man who answered the phone offered to find Holley. He put the phone down and must have thought I was on hold.

I could hear everything.

"They want me?" another man said loudly.

"Yeah, they want you."

"What about?"

"A JP trial."

"Why would the Fort Worth Star-Telegram want me?"

"I don't know."

Then I heard laughter. The man picked up the phone and said, "I can't find him anywhere."

"I heard the whole thing," I said.

The man said, "Oh dude, I'm sorry." I asked him to try again.

Holley came to the phone. I asked why he missed court.

"We don't know whether we were notified or not. I went to the courthouse today and filed a motion for a new trial, which is the legal procedure to start over. This is by no means over. It was an error that caused us not to be there."

I asked what caused the error.

"We won't know," he said.

The lawyer called Ryan at work a few days after the trial and asked her for more information about her case. She says she scolded him and said, "You had ample opportunity to be at the courthouse last week."

On Thursday, Ritchie's court staff alerted Ryan that the Allstate lawyer is dropping his request for a new trial. Allstate will send Ryan the $3,000.

Score one for the little people.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber