How to Navigate Small Claims Court 

Small Claims Court 

Small claims court allows you to assert your legal rights in an affordable and quick manner. Small claims court is part of the “civil” court system and not the “criminal” court system. This means that someone won’t go to jail if you sue them in small claims court, rather, they will owe you money if you win. Most small claims courts have special rules that make it easier for people without an attorney to navigate the bureaucratic court process. 

Types of Small Claims Court Lawsuits

There are many types of cases that can be filed in small claims court. Here are some of the most common types of lawsuits: 

  • Your former landlord refuses to return your security deposit.
  • Your tenant damaged your apartment, and the cost of repairs is greater than they deposit.
  • A mechanic failed to repair your car and won’t give you a refund. 
  • You lent money to a friend and your friend refuses to repay it.
  • You paid a contractor to work in your home, and they didn’t complete the job or did a bad job.
  • You were in a car accident and the person who caused the accident won’t pay for you to repair your car. 

If there is a more specialized court in your state for a particular legal dispute like evictions, then you may not be able to file that type of case in a small claims court. 

How Small Claims Court Works

While each state may have slightly different processes, here are the basic steps to filing a small claims court lawsuit:

  • File the small claims lawsuit, known as the complaint or claim.
  • Serve the complaint on the person sued. This means to notify the person you have sued about the lawsuit. 
  • Prepare your evidence and arguments.
  • Present the case at the small claims hearing.
  • Wait until the judge makes a decision in your case. 

If the person you sued does not show up to the small court hearing, in many states, you will still have to prove why you should win. In other states, you may get a “default” which means you automatically win if the person you sued doesn’t show up to the hearing. 

The Basics: Sue for a realistic amount

You want to make sure to sue for a realistic amount in small claims. You want to aim to sue for an amount that correlates to your actual loss, called “damages.” For example, if you paid someone to pour concrete on your driveway and they didn’t, you may want to sue for the amount you paid them. There may be laws that give you additional damages, so make sure to run a google search or consult an attorney. 

The Basics: Careful record keeping

We recommend keeping track of contracts, receipts, canceled checks, and other documents relevant to your lawsuit. If the dispute escalates to a lawsuit, you will want to have sufficient evidence to prove you are right instead of having the judge decide between your word and the person you are suing’s the word.

Try to keep as much of your communication with the person you are suing in writing over text message or email. In the event you communicate in person or over the phone, you can summarize your conversation by sending a text message or email to the person you spoke with right after. For example, you can start your email as follows: “per our conversation yesterday” or “it was great meeting today, here is a summary of what we spoke about.” 

The Basics: Do your homework

Before suing in small claims court, you will want to make sure you have the person you are suing’s information. For example, you will most likely need their address in order to serve them. Serving means the act of notifying the person you are suing about the lawsuit (there are very specific rules, so make sure you look up the rules for your local court). If you don’t know where they live but know they own property, you can find their information in the county property records. 

The Basics: Bring proof with you

Pictures are worth a thousand words, aren’t they? If the painter leaves half of the house unpainted, take pictures so that the court can see that your house is half painted. 

As part of gathering your evidence for the small claims hearing, think of what the person you are suing will tell the judge. Make sure you bring evidence that counters anything that they may bring up. 

Wrapping Up

Small Claims Court can be a great way to get your money back. Other times, it can be more difficult if you are suing someone who wants to avoid the law. Consider the probability of the person voluntarily paying you if you win, otherwise, you will have to engage in collections. If someone loses in small claims, it may affect their credit so many people quickly pay after losing in small claims.

That said, many times, you aren’t suing because you know you will be able to collect your money but rather out of principle so that the person hopefully does not keep doing what they are doing to others. After all, a court judgment will be part of the public record and anyone could access it.