Know your rights: Insurance does not affect liability

I had a car accident. The person who hit me won't tell me the name of his insurance company. I don't believe he even has insurance. The damages to my car are not extensive and I was not hurt, but I think he should pay. Am I out of luck?

If the person who hit you caused the accident, he is liable for your damages. Whether he has insurance does not change his liability. If the amount of your damages is under $10,000, I suggest you file a claim in small claims court. If you file suit, the other person probably will bring in his insurance company, if he has insurance. If he doesn't have insurance and doesn't pay a judgment in your favor, he could lose his driver's license and car registration.

I went to a restaurant and when I got the bill, they had added an 18 percent tip. Is this legal?

How much you owe the restaurant is based on the agreement you enter into with the restaurant. From a legal standard, the menu is considered an offer of food for a price, and when you order, you agree to pay that price. In my opinion, if the menu is silent as to the amount of the tip, tipping is optional and the amount is at your discretion. The restaurant has no right to add a tip. On the other hand, the restaurant has the right to add language to the menu or otherwise indicate that a tip in a set amount will be added. For example, many restaurants include language that a tip will be added to groups above a certain size. If you order food after being aware that a tip will be added, you have agreed to the tip in the stated amount.

My stepfather died without a will. Am I entitled to any of his property?

When a person dies without a will, the law determines who inherits his or her property. Although many children consider a stepparent to be no different than any other parent, that is not the law. A stepchild is not included within the list of people to whom property passes after death. For a stepchild to inherit, the stepchild must be a beneficiary in a will.

I have a sister who is thinking about getting divorced. She has one child. She was wondering how much she might receive for child support.

Texas has guidelines to determine how much should be paid for child support. Although the guidelines are not mandatory, must courts follow them. For one child, the amount is 20 percent of net resources. The court, however, is instructed to do what is in the best interest of the child and may vary from the guidelines.

What can ex-employers say to another employer seeking job references? Can they say the employee was fired and why? Can they talk in detail about the employee's work history?

In most cases, employers disclose very little about former employees. As far as the law is concerned, however, they may disclose most matters related to work. The only limitation on what may be disclosed is our defamation laws. If the employer were to say things that were untrue, it could be liable for damages.

My employer recently raised my hours to 45 a week from 40. Is this legal? What if I refuse to work the extra hours?

Unless you have a contract or a union agreement, your employer has control over your hours and may change them at will. All the law requires is that you be paid overtime for hours in excess of 40 a week. If you refuse to work, he could fire you.

Richard Alderman, a consumer advocate popularly known as "the People's Lawyer," is a professor at the University of Houston Law School in Houston. His column appears weekly in the Victoria Advocate. Write to him at UH Law Center, Houston, Texas 77204-6391. He also maintains a Web page at peopleslawyer.net.