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What Can I Sue for in Small Claims Court?

Angry people arguing their problems to a Judge

Small claims court is a public forum where people can have their legal disputes heard. Small claims cases are usually informal proceedings, where people (called litigants) can bring their claim. The small claims court process might look like this:

  • The plaintiff pays a filing fee to present the case
  • The parties may try to negotiate an agreement
  • There is a court hearing where they speak directly to the judge
  • Both sides present evidence and make arguments
  • The judge issues a verdict

The judge will read the plaintiff's claim and the defendant's answer, hear both sides of the case on the hearing date, and render a verdict reasonably quickly. Taking your case to a small claims court saves you the expensive and time-consuming process of a full trial.

The possible downside to small claims court is the lack of attorney representation. Many people who go to small claims court decide to represent themselves (this is called bringing your claim "pro se"), or are required to do so. If you choose to go this route, you will not receive any legal advice during the process, so the case depends on your evidence and how well you present it.

What Kinds of Cases Go to Small Claims Court?

Small claims courts are courts of "limited jurisdiction," meaning that they can only hear specific types of cases. Most small claims courts can only hear civil cases involving small amounts of money, usually around $10,000 or less. You'll need to check with your county and state to determine the limits for your case.

Small claims courts can hear most types of civil court cases, such as:

  • Breach of contract disputes
  • Personal injury claims (such as dog bites)
  • Collection on debts or loan repayments
  • Professional negligence claims (like bad car repairs)
  • Claims regarding the return of a renter's security deposit or personal property
  • Issues with contractors or home remodels
  • Property damage claims
  • Claims involving eviction notices or unlawful eviction
  • False arrest claims
  • Libel or slander cases
  • Counterclaims to a lawsuit

Most small claims courts do not hear:

  • Family law cases (divorce, child support issues, guardianships)
  • Name changes
  • Bankruptcy
  • Probate cases
  • Personal injury cases with serious injuries or damages

Practically anyone can bring a small claims court case or be sued in small claims court, including individuals, large corporations, and small businesses. For cases that could win a dollar amount over $10,000, you may want an attorney to bring the matter to a superior court.

The Small Claims Court: Can I Hire a Lawyer?

Many states do not allow parties to be represented by lawyers in small claims court. One of the main advantages of small claims cases is informality and inexpensiveness, so bringing a lawyer can defeat the purpose.

Some states do allow attorneys but may have additional rules and procedures on parties that choose to be represented. Regardless of whether your state allows attorneys, you are still permitted to consult with an attorney outside of court, so long as you file the complaint form and argue the case yourself.

What Happens When I File My Small Claims Court Lawsuit?

When you first file your small claims lawsuit, the court will notify the opposing party by issuing a summons to appear in court. You need to know their correct name, where the defendant lives, their phone number or contact information, and other basic information for the court forms.

You will then have to attend the court date to prove your case.

Many states provide mediators to help the parties make a last effort to resolve their disputes before taking the case to the judge.

What Should I Bring to Small Claims Court?

When your court date arrives, you should bring anything that will help prove your case or defend against the opposing party's claims. This could include:

  • Copies of contracts you signed with the opposing party
  • Receipts for disputed purchases
  • Photos of injuries
  • Damage caused by the opposing party
  • Any witnesses whom you wish to testify on your behalf

If a witness refuses to attend, you should speak to the court clerk about issuing a subpoena to require the witness to attend.

What If the Other Party Doesn't Show up at Small Claims Court?

If a party does not appear on the court date, the court will likely enter a "default judgment" against the absent party. This usually means the person who showed up wins the case. The party that did show can then have that judgment enforced.

In rare cases, the court may postpone the case if the other party was absent due to an actual emergency, such as a medical emergency or a car accident. The judge usually has total discretion over whether to postpone the case.

Can I Appeal a Small Claims Judgment?

You can appeal a small claim's verdict in most states. The process and your rights to the appeal will vary depending on your state laws.

You should look into your state laws for:

  • Any time limits on filing appeals
  • Where small claims cases can be appealed
  • What different courts handle (such as the superior court or district court for the jurisdiction)

Anyone wishing to appeal a small claims case should consult their state's laws to determine what rights they have to an appeal, if any.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to help you with preparing for and dealing with going to court.

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