When a young woman named Carissa knocked at my door on a recent Saturday evening and introduced herself as a process server, I knew things were about to get interesting.
And when I read the civil action summons she handed me, I was intrigued.
A Florida-based travel agency had sued me for reporting about its legal troubles on my blog. (I won't name the agency, because I think part of the reason it filed a complaint was because it craves publicity. Denied.) Next to my name on the suit, I recognized the name of one of the agency's clients.
Yes, the company was taking one of its own customers to court.
Apparently he had made some comments online that the agency didn't like.
The episode left me wondering whether travel companies are becoming more litigious and whether travelers can do anything to avoid a visit from someone like Carissa. The answers are yes and yes.
Greg Grant, a lawyer with the Potomac, Md.-based law firm Shulman Rogers, says that travel company lawsuits against customers appear to be on the rise. The reason: money.
"Tough economic times may give businesses more reason to bring these actions against customers," he said.
When companies are in the black, they're less likely to pursue a customer who has damaged a rental car or trashed a hotel room. The most extreme measure they'd consider is sending an unpaid bill to a collection agency. But at a time like this, when every penny counts, they're taking the legal option.
By the way, can you guess which part of the travel industry is the most litigious? Is it airlines, with their draconian fare rules? Hotels, which are fond of charging you for items in your room that you might or might not have broken? No.
Try rental-car companies.
"They sue customers on a dime, and for small amounts of money, which is really not good policy," said Edward Neiger, a personal and corporate bankruptcy lawyer in New York. "The other industries sue less often."
You can help yourself avoid legal trouble by taking precautions when you travel.
Matt Eventoff, an expert on crisis management and communications, recommends documenting everything, including any conversations with a travel company. If you think a lawsuit might be imminent, he suggests taking your grievance to the top. "Staff at corporate headquarters tends to be very aware of the public-relations implications of the messages sent in certain situations," he said.
Executives might have second thoughts about suing a customer who keeps meticulous records and isn't afraid to talk publicly about a grievance. "Everything that a company does sends a message, and any lawsuit filed against a customer would certainly send a message -- and not a good one," he added.
And speaking of talking in public, another legal pitfall is embellishing the truth online, according to Marc Edelman, a law professor at Florida's Barry University. "In today's age of Facebook, Twitter and blogs, we will likely begin to see more companies sue their customers for Internet libel," he told me. "Frequent travelers who write about their experiences online should be careful to state only accurate facts or opinion."
Many companies can be talked out of a lawsuit, according to Grant. "Businesses are less likely to sue customers who are apt to show some responsibility for their obligations," he said. "For example, a customer who offers to pay something over time or agrees to pay a portion of debt owed, versus nothing or a flat-out non-response."
What if you can't reason with a travel company? Experts say that if you're wrongfully accused, you should fight back by answering the complaint or filing a motion to dismiss the case. That can discourage a litigious company from filing other lawsuits.
You're probably wondering what happened after Carissa's surprise Saturday night visit. The Florida travel agency's case against the customer and me is pending as I write this, although the publicity from the court action has been almost entirely negative for the company.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.