Some of the most common cases that are heard in small claims courts include:
- Tenant-landlord disputes not including evictions;
- Minor, non-moving auto accidents; and
- Merchandise refunds.
Small claims courts address disputes associated with considerably small amounts of money. Cases are generally between individuals, or may be between an individual against a business. The amount of money that can be sought in small claims courts largely depends on the jurisdiction, but the general range is $1,000 to $5,000.
Determining when it would make sense to take a case to small claims court depends on a number of different factors, which can include:
- How it will affect your future relationship with this party;
- Whether the time and effort are worth the potential monetary damages award;
- If the disagreement between the two sides is minor, or considerably detrimental;
- Whether you have kept good records of all of your transactions with the other party;
- How likely is it that you can collect what you are owed from the other party; and
- Whether other methods of settlement have been attempted.
When suing in small claims court, ordinary people generally represent themselves, although they are allowed to be represented by an attorney. The rules are considerably straightforward, which makes small claims courts more accessible for everyone. Additionally, small claims court judges generally do not follow usual court procedures, and they will rarely throw out cases on a technicality. As these judges want to come to a fair decision given the circumstances, they frequently bend procedural rules in order to do so.
It is important to note that one obstacle to filing a small claims court claim would be the amount. Each state has a different cap; an example of this would be how California small claims courts limit claims to $10,000 or less. If it is a business claim, the amount is $5,000 or less. Additionally, small claims court is reserved for civil disputes. As such, they do not hear:
- Workers’ compensation; or
- Other such cases.
What is the Process in Small Claims Courts?
The small claims court process is generally informal, and is characterized by the following:
- You are responsible for filing within the correct jurisdiction, as well as for paying the filing fee;
- The trial is decided by a judge and not a jury;
- You are responsible for providing your own evidence and witnesses;
- You are responsible for stating your case;
- Either you or your opponent can appeal an adverse judgment; and
- You may be required to take further action in order to collect your judgment.
Small claims court cases should begin by trying to collect your debt through phone calls, letters, or other such ways; you should consider going to court as your last resort. While the filing fees associated with small claims court cases are reasonable and it is a simple process, it is still a court action.
In order to receive a court date, you must fill out the correct forms, as well as submit the appropriate documents. An example of this would be the signed contract that is the subject of the dispute. Some states have determined that you must send the party that you are suing a demand letter before filing a claim.
Alternatively, you may need to officially serve the other party with a lawsuit. Additionally, there may be different rules defining what proper “service” means. Finally, you should ensure that the amount that you are suing for falls below the maximum claim.
You should ensure that you are well aware of the rules governing needs to appear in court for your claim. This step is imperative as these cases move quickly; they are generally heard within a few months of filing a claim. As such, if you are relying on witnesses, ensure that you contact them in order to collect their recollection of the event. In some jurisdictions, a witness affidavit or sworn statement will be sufficient.
Keep your presentation concise and related to the facts that are necessary and relevant to your case. Additionally, making a good impression with the judge by being respectful can go a long way. You can do this by showing up early, dressing appropriately, and treating the judge and all staff with dignity.
Also, you should address the judge as “Your Honor,” and do not interrupt or be confrontational. You should have all of your documents and witnesses organized and ready to go when your case is called by the court clerk.
Once the judge makes their decision on your case, you will need to follow up with the court in order to ensure that the judge’s judgment is enforced. Additionally, you may need to take further action in order to ensure that the other party actually pays you what they owe. An example of this would be getting a wage garnishment, or a lien on property.
What Kind of Damages Can You Sue for in Small Claims Court? What Evidence is Needed in Small Claims Court?
To reiterate, because small claims courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, they can only hear specific types of cases. As such, the majority of small claims courts can only hear civil cases involving small amounts of money, generally amounting to $10,000 or less. The kind of damages that you can sue for in small claims court would be similar to those found in breach of contract cases. You will need to check with both your county and state in order to determine the limits for your case.
Examples of the types of civil court cases that small claims court generally hear include:
- Breach of contract disputes;
- Personal injury claims, such as dog bites;
- Collection on debts or loan repayments;
- Professional negligence claims, such as bad car repairs;
- Claims associated with the return of a renter’s security deposit or personal property;
- Issues associated with contractors or home remodels;
- Property damage claims;
- Claims associated with eviction notices or unlawful eviction;
- False arrest claims;
- Libel or slander cases; and
- Counterclaims to a lawsuit.
As was previously mentioned, most small claims courts do not hear:
- Family law cases such as divorce, child support issues, and guardianships;
- Name changes;
- Probate cases; and
- Personal injury cases involving serious injuries or damages.
For cases that could be awarded a dollar amount exceeding $10,000, you may want an attorney to bring the matter to a superior court.
When your small claims court date arrives, you should bring anything that will help you to prove your case, or defend against the opposing party’s claims. This could include, but may not be limited to:
- Copies of contracts that you signed with the opposing party;
- Receipts for disputed purchases;
- Photos of injuries;
- Damage caused by the opposing party; and
- Any witnesses who can testify on your behalf. If a key witness refuses to attend, you should speak to the court clerk about issuing a subpoena which would require the witness to attend the hearing.
Do I Need to Consult a Lawyer about my Small Claims Case?
While lawyers are not commonly sought out in small claims cases, you may wish to hire a landlord tenant lawyer to help you file suit in small claims court. An attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific laws, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.