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KCTV5 Investigates: Winners who lose

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KANSAS CITY, KS (KCTV) -

Getting a win in a civil court case may seem like a good way to settle a dispute. But an overwhelming number of these victories turn into defeat for the winners left fighting to collect what a judge ruled they were owed.

In 2009, KCK resident Howard Saunders sued a previous employer for two accidents that happened as a result of his job. The injuries left him disabled and nearly broke.

"It changed me, you know," Saunders said. "It changed me mentally and physically."

When that previous employer didn't bother to show up in court to fight the suit, Saunders was awarded a default judgment in the amount of $500,000.

Four years after the verdict, Saunders has yet to collect any of the half a million dollars he is owed.

"Did you think when you won you were going to get a check?" KCTV5 investigative reporter Stacey Cameron asked.

"Oh, I mean I thought I would get something," Saunders replied.

Instead, Saunders said he's on the brink of bankruptcy.

"I'm running out of options, you know," he said.

When it comes to civil court cases, the outcome of Saunders' case is all-too common said  Edward Cantu, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

"Half the victory is actually recovering what the court has declared you are legally entitled to," Cantu said.

In just the past three years, nearly 20,000 civil suits have been filed in Wyandotte County alone. That translates to hundreds of thousands of cases across Missouri and Kansas.

According to Cantu, an estimated 80 percent of the people who win judgments end up like Saunders.

"People assume that if they've won a judgment that means a court is going to somehow, right there on the spot, write a check for the judgment," Cantu said. "And of course that's not how it happens."

As Cantu explains, in order to ensure a judgment is fulfilled, the winner of a suit will likely need to head right back into court and request something called a writ of execution.

"The court orders law enforcement officers, usually the sheriff to seize property of the defendant and sell it at auction in order to satisfy the judgment," Cantu said.

However, not all property is up for grabs.

Deputies may not be allowed to seize a defendant's personal vehicle, all the money in a bank account, or personal valuables like wedding rings. There are some exemptions.

Lt. Kelli Bailiff, with the Wyandotte County Sheriff's Office, said defendants don't own a lot of property.

"We find most people frustrated around the two or three thousand (dollar) mark," Bailiff said.

Another option available to plaintiffs working to collect money won in small judgments from defendants with few resources  is garnishing wages. However, that may not happen without a lot of effort.

"You do have to know where they work," Bailiff said. "You do have to do a little homework, but you can find that out pretty quickly."

Both Bailiff and Cantu consider today's online resources a crucial part of these recovery efforts.

"Thank goodness for the internet. These days it's often easy to Google somebody and find out where they work," Cantu said. "I think this information is in fact most relevant to people who win small claims judgments."

Cantu said the system does make it easier than ever for plaintiffs to handle their own collection cases.

"The courts nowadays are generally good at providing standardized forms and simple forms that allow the average person to pursue execution without a lot of expert knowledge," Cantu said.

While the process may be easier to navigate, it is still time consuming and expensive.

"It's a lengthy process," Bailiff said. "It takes up a lot of our deputies time."

Sheriff's deputies are not bill collectors. Their time and services are not free. Going to court to have law enforcement seize a defendant's property and sell it at auction comes at a cost.

"The fees can cost anywhere from $50 to $100 depending on the jurisdiction," Cantu said.

Unfortunately, paying that money offers no guarantee of the defendant ever paying up. Cantu said once all those options have been exhausted, there is a last resort to consider; selling the judgment you've failed to collect over to a lawfirm or collection agency willing to try.

"Plaintiffs can often sell their judgment from anywhere between 5 to 20 cents on the dollar," Cantu said. "And the reason why they get so little is because they are very seldom collected on, especially small claims judgments."

Still in pain and tired of the collection game, Saunders said he is ready to sell, knowing he will likely only receive a few thousand dollars from a judgment that was supposed to have turned around his life.

"Something is better than nothing," Saunders said. "Anything is better than zero."

There are still several more ways a defendant may try to duck payment, like transferring ownership of assets that could be seized or filing bankruptcy.

Because of that, Cantu said that once a judgment is won, the winning party should start trying to collect immediately before the money can disappear.

Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.)  All rights reserved.

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