When a plaintiff is bringing a civil suit wherein the judgment may not be very large, having the case heard in small claims court may be the best option. The low cost, speed of settlement, and other benefits offered via small claims court make it a logical choice for both individuals and small businesses. Understanding how small claims court works and the process by which judgments are settled and claimed is key to a successful experience with this arm of the judicial system. This resource offers an overview of small claims court, how to conduct oneself during the small claims process, and provides several resources for further study on the subject.
Small Claims Basics
Small claims court is designed to handle cases in which only a few thousand dollars of property and loss are at stake. It is an advantageous method for addressing these issues because they can be handled quickly and for a relatively low cost compared to the many thousands of dollars that it can cost to go through the normal civil process. Lawyers and juries are not involved when cases go to small claims court; the judge makes the decision after hearing both sides of the story. Plaintiffs cannot appeal the verdict if they lose, but defendants who lose their case are allowed to appeal for the courts to reconsider. State laws vary as to the statute of limitations in which the case can be filed, and the case will go to trial within three months of the filing date. Small claims court often features individuals as the plaintiffs and defendants, however, small businesses file in small claim courts as well because of the size of the case and potential claim. Certain exceptions are made when it comes to actually appearing in court, the main one being that citizens on active military duty are not usually required to appear before the judge.
What to Do if You Are Suing
Those who are plaintiffs in small claims court must be careful to make sure that they have enough supporting evidence to make a strong case; otherwise, the time of everyone involved will be wasted. Plaintiffs have a much better chance of winning when their accusations of wrongdoing and damages are thoroughly documented with things like contracts, witnesses, photos, and more. Going to the courthouse to see one or more other small claims cases being tried before one’s case goes before the judge can be helpful, as it can give one an idea of what to expect. If the case involves a property dispute and the defendant owns property, getting an accurate idea of the property’s worth and tax history can also be helpful for knowing the judgment to expect. The county tax collector will be the best place to find this information. It might also be wise to consider mediation or any other alternative to the small claims process. Finally, it is essential to fill out all of the right forms so that the case might go through as scheduled, and so that any judgment might finally be reached.
What to Do if You Are Being Sued
Receiving news that one is being sued in small claims court can be a jarring experience, but defendants in small claims cases must not let the shock keep them from being prepared for court. Otherwise, the defendant is sure to lose. The first thing any defendant should do is to take steps to avoid going to court, which can involve things like trying to work out the issue with the plaintiff or going through a lawyer sponsored mediation. Even if such steps are pursued, however, the plaintiff may still want to go to small claims court. Like the plaintiff in small claims court, the key to one’s success as a defendant is to have sufficient evidence to mount an effective case in favor of one’s position. The same kind of evidence mentioned above will help any defendant’s case — photos, documents, and the like. Talking to a lawyer and witnessing a small claims case in advance can also help a defendant prepare for their day in court.
Mediation is a process that offers an opportunity to settle a dispute without going all the way to court. Most small claims court experts recommend that everyone considering small claims court first take a look at mediation because it can speed up the process and keep the plaintiff and defendant in charge of the outcome, meaning that they have a greater say in the final judgment than if it is offered by a judge whom neither party knows. Mediation can happen before or after the small claims court paperwork files, and the mediation process generally takes no more than two hours once it begins. A mediator will meet with the plaintiff and the defendant to help them work out their difficulties through a civil discussion and agreement upon terms. In some cases, mediation will be free, though there is often a charge involved. Even in those cases where mediation is pursued, it is still important to get a lawyer’s advice for what to pursue during the meeting with the mediator. This applies to both the plaintiff and the defendant.
Research Your Case
There are several common cases that might go to small claims court, and understanding how to research each one will greatly increase one’s chance of success. In the case of a dispute involving automotive repair, for example, it is important to file a complaint with the state Bureau of Automotive Repair first because they will be able to determine if any laws were broken and thereby help the plaintiff’s case. Should the dispute involve property damage, it will be necessary to consult a specialist in property damage law in order to determine the statute of limitations on when the claim can be filed. A property agent will also be a helpful individual to consult, and this person might even be able to represent the plaintiff or defendant in small claims court. In the case of getting a security deposit returned, it is necessary to be aware that the landlord is allowed to deduct money for damages to the property if actual damage has occurred due to the fault of the renter. These are just a few of the most common small claims court cases. Plaintiffs and defendants should be sure that they contact a librarian, lawyer, or other individual for these and other cases before they actually file for resolution through small claims court.
Get Ready for Court
In addition to having evidence gathered and put together in a presentable format, getting ready for court also involves understanding the process and being prepared for the hearing. Plaintiffs will always present their side of the story first, and the case may only last all of 15 minutes. Consequently, it is important to rehearse one’s argument in advance to make the most of the short time that is actually allotted to making one’s case. In rehearsing this part of the case, it is also good to think of the opposing side, and how to counter their arguments. Get to the point quickly during the hearing and explain the situation in the order that the events happened. Make sure that any witnesses who will be called are present and prepared to testify. Obey court rules and always be polite and respectful to the judge and other officials.
Collect Your Judgment
Collecting one’s judgment in small claims court can sometimes be more difficult than winning the case itself. The court will not collect the judgment on behalf of the plaintiff, but it will provide all of the documents necessary to enable the plaintiff to collect. The winner of the case will not actually be able to collect until the period for appeal is up, so one should not move too fast to get the compensation that has been ordered. At the same time, there will be a statute of limitations on how long the plaintiff has to collect their judgment, and after this period, which varies from state to state, the plaintiff will no longer have a right to collect. Certain costs associated with collecting the judgment may also be recoverable from the defendant, so make sure these funds are pursued as well. Sometimes the defendant will pay the court in lieu of paying the plaintiff directly, and when this occurs, the court will notify the plaintiff. In most states, the plaintiff will then have to fill out paperwork to get access to the monies that have been paid.
- State Small Claims Courts — This page has links to the rules and procedures for all of the small claims courts in the United States.
- Ask an Expert: Small Claims Court — Tips for succeeding in small claims court from USA Today are accessible via this link.
- Nolo: Small Claims Court — There are several excellent articles on the small claims court process on this page.
- Small Claims Court for Small Businesses — The Encyclopedia for Business has some good information for small businesses and the small claims court on this page.
- Staking Small Claims — Bloomberg.com offers some useful advice to maximize one’s chances of success in small claims court.
- Suing in Small Claims Court — Find out how to sue in small claims court on this helpful page.