Small Claims Cases

Assume that you sustain a personal injury due to someone else's negligence or misconduct, but your damages are very minor. You decide that you are interested in filing a suit in small claims court, so you don’t have to share any part of your small judgment with a personal injury attorney. This article, which does not constitute legal advice, explains some basic issues in small claims case.

First, it is most important to determine that this is a case appropriate for small claims court. Each state has a maximum recovery amount which may be sought in small claims court; if there is any possibility that your judgment will exceed that monetary limit, you should not file in small claims court. The best way to determine your maximum possible recovery is to consult with a personal injury attorney. The consultation should be free; the personal injury attorney should inform you if he or she is not interested in your case since your damages are so minor (and the attorney won't be sufficiently compensated for his or her time on your case.)

If your meeting with a personal injury attorney or two confirms that you have a case appropriate for small claims court, check with the Small Claims Court in your jurisdiction to determine if it offers any brochures or other written information about how to file a claim. Since most states do not allow small claims parties to be represented by an attorney, they usually provide written information about how to proceed and this will be a valuable resource.

Generally, you initiate a small claims court case by filing a Complaint. The Complaint must be served on the other party (the defendant.) Every jurisdiction has its own rules as to how the Complaint must be served on the defendant, and it is critical to your case that you do this correctly or the court may dismiss your claim. Many states allow service through certified mail, and do not require service by a sheriff or other third party.

After the defendant is served, and proof of service is submitted to the court, you should receive notice of a hearing date at the small claims court. If you do not appear at the time and date set for your hearing, your case will almost certainly be dismissed. If for some reason you cannot attend at the scheduled time, contact the Small Claims court clerk and ask if you may request a continuance (a postponement of the hearing.)

To prepare for your hearing, think carefully about what you are asking the court for, why the defendant is responsible for your personal injury, and what evidence you have to support your case. Your testimony is far less important than the other evidence you can produce to corroborate your story, like a police report, an estimate of the damage to your car, notarized witness statements, medical bills, a note from your employer about the time you missed from work, etc. The judge will not take into account any evidence that you wish you had brought with you to the hearing, so err on the side of bringing too much rather than too little. Organize your documents before the hearing so you can quickly find any evidence you want to submit to the court.

Arrive early for your hearing and watch some others so you get an idea of how the judge handles the hearings. As the plaintiff, you will put your case on first. Make sure you have thought about what you are going to say before this time; most judges have little patience for unorganized testimony, sifting through documents to find what you want, etc. The defendant will then get a chance to present his or her evidence. The judge will listen to both cases, and make a decision.

If you are awarded a judgment, the next step is collecting on your personal injury judgement.