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Small Claims, Big Stakes: Questions and Answers

If you can't settle the case yourself or through mediation, it's time to stop fooling around and head for the courthouse.

Here are some basic questions and answers.

What types of cases can I bring into small claims court?
Civil cases only, not criminal, can be brought in small claims court. Some examples:

  • property damage (your gray wool pants);
  • breach of contract (the contractor ripped out your old kitchen, then never came back);
  • product liability (the lawn mower started a fire)
  • fraud cases (the sign said50% off but the store refused to honor it).

Some of the most "popular" cases brought in small claims court include: home improvements, car repairs, "buggy" computers, complaints against moving and storage companies and landlord/tenant disputes.

How much can I sue for?
The top amount you can sue for in Small Claims varies from state to state. It is usually several thousand dollars, although if a case is transferred to a regular civil docket, the top dollar amount typically increases.

Where do I go to file my case?
File your case in the court which has jurisdiction.

What gives the court jurisdiction?
Here are two possibilities:

  • the incident on which you base your claim took place in the court's territory, or
  • the defendant or business is located in the court's territory.

If you ordered something over the Internet, by mail or telephone, your local court will usually have jurisdiction, since your part of the transaction took place locally.

Who can be sued in small claims court?
Any individual, business, company or organization can either file a case in small claims court or have one filed against them. Surprise: even minors (under 18 years) can file a claim or be sued through parent or guardians in many states.

What kind of information do I need before I drive to the courthouse? To file a statement of claim, you'll need to first gather the facts including what happened, where and when, how you were damaged, and what attempts you made to recover.

Write this out in a simple narrative, attaching any exhibits (copies of letters, bills, checks, etc.) that will help your case.

Upon filing your complaint, you'll get a case number and trial date.

Defendant info: Make sure you know the legal name of the person/business you're trying to sue, along with their address, telephone number. Any other information you can provide, such as the defendant's employer or social security number, can help in locating him/her and later in collecting on a judgment.

Remember, only a corporation can be sued in the company name - if you're suing an individual or partner, use the person's name rather than the name of the business.

How does the other side get notice?
The court will send the defendant a copy of the complaint by certified mail. If it comes back unclaimed, another copy is usually sent by regular mail. You can also arrange to have the defendant served personally by a sheriff or process server (at extra cost), but this isn't usually necessary.

How much will this cost me?
Not much. In many small claims courts, filing a case against one defendant costs around $25, sometimes with a surcharge for additional defendants. You pay this fee when filing. Usually, the winner can include court costs in the judgment total.

If you incur extra expenses trying to collect your money (see liens/garnishment), you're entitled to collect these costs and probably interest on the judgment as well.

Do I need a lawyer?
No. Some states prohibit lawyers in Small Claims. Others allow them, but in any case, procedures are relaxed and more informal so plaintiffs can represent themselves.

A warning: defendants frequently have the option to ask the court to transfer the case to a regular civil docket, where people usually have counsel. Keep your attorney's business card in case this happens.

Next: What else?