An Overview of Small Claims Court

Understand the basics before deciding whether to sue in small claims court

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Filing a case in small claims court is a highly cost-effective strategy for resolving all kinds of disputes. In most states, the maximum amount you can sue for has increased substantially in recent years, and court judgments have become far easier to collect. In addition, many states have implemented innovative mediation programs for small claims, which can spare you the time and tension of presenting your case to a judge. So, although more can and should be done to make small claims court a true people's court, it is an efficient forum that gives participants an opportunity to resolve many personal consumer and small business disputes.

However, if your only court experience is watching Judge Judy, then you're going to be in for a big surprise if you ever take a real case to a real small claims court. In an actual courtroom, you won't get your 15 minutes of fame, much less a judge who takes a keen interest in you and offers extended commentary on your maturity, responsibility, or decency. Instead, youll get five minutes to present your case so you'd better be ready.

Preparing for your day in court is the key to winning. Whether you're suing over a sweater the dry cleaner ruined or defending yourself against a claim that you owe money for faulty car repairs, you need to have everything ready before you walk through the courthouse door.  Witnesses, bills, receipts, letters -- if you're not organized, you're going to be out of luck.

Proper presentation of your small claims action can often mean the difference between receiving a check and writing one. You will need to be able to develop and present your legal and factual position as effectively as possible. Just as important as knowing when and how to bring your small claims court action is knowing when not to. Clearly, you don't want to waste time and energy dragging a hopeless case to court. And even if your case is legally sound, you won't want to pursue it if your chances of collecting from the defendant are poor.

One of the advantages of small claims court is that when you file your case you are not required to present theories of law–instead, you simply state the facts of the dispute and rely on the judge to fit them into one or another legal theory of recovery. All you really need to know is that you have suffered monetary loss and that the person or business you are suing caused your loss.

In the complaint or claim you file to start the lawsuit, you will give a simple description of the dispute. Depending, of course, on the facts of your case, you will state your claim more or less like this:

  • "John's Dry Cleaners ruined my jacket on December 13, 20xx."
  • "His dog bit me on the corner of Rose and Peach Streets in West Covina, California, on April 27, 20xx."
  • "The car repairs that Joe's Garage did on my car on July 11, 20xx, were done wrong, resulting in an engine fire."
  • "Landlord refused to return the cleaning deposit when I moved out of my apartment on August 11, 20xx, even though I left it clean."
  • "The used car I purchased from her on January 26, 20xx, in 'tiptop condition,' blew a gasket the next day."
  • "The $5,000 I lent defendant has not been repaid by November 12, 20xx, as promised."

When you state your case on the court papers, your goal is to notify the other party and the court of the issue in dispute. You don't need or want to try to list your evidence or otherwise try to convince anyone that you are in the right or that the law is on your side. Your chance to do this will come later in court.

In addition to properly gathering and analyzing your facts and legal claim, it's important that you review the materials made available by your state's small claims court. Crucial technical details such as when and where court is held, what types of evidence are allowed and prohibited, and how much it will cost to collect a judgment are covered in detail in those materials. Fortunately, accessing this material is easy–it's usually available online as well as in free pamphlets available at your small claims court clerk's office.

Before you file your case, you should set up a good system to safeguard key papers and evidence. It's no secret that more than one case has been won (or lost) because of good (or bad) record keeping. One excellent approach is to get a couple of manila envelopes or file folders and label them with the name of your dispute (Lincoln vs. Williams). Use one folder to store all documentary evidence, such as receipts, letters, names and addresses of potential witnesses, and photographs. The other is for your court papers. Once organized, make sure you conscientiously store your folders in a safe place.

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