Recovering Costs in Small Claims Court

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Both plaintiff and defendant are entitled to ask that a judgment in their favor include any recoverable costs, such as for filing and serving court papers or subpoenaing essential witnesses. Sometimes defendants have no costs, unless they subpoena a necessary witness. In most states, costs that are recoverable by the winner include:

  • The plaintiff's court filing fee (defendants pay no fee to appear unless they file a defendant's claim).
  • Service of process costs. A plaintiff must always pay this fee, which can vary from a few dollars where certified mail is used to considerably more if a professional process service is required. A defendant will normally only have to pay to serve papers if he or she files a defendant's claim (counterclaim).
  • Subpoenaed witness fees, if approved by the judge. Both the plaintiff and defendant can incur this cost if a witness must be subpoenaed and claims a fee. Fees for subpoenaing witnesses and documents are likely to be approved only if the judge believes the presence of the witness in court was necessary to prove the case.
  • The cost of obtaining necessary documents, such as verification of car ownership. (Both plaintiffs and defendants can have these costs.)

If you forget to get your costs added to the judgment in court and want to go to the trouble, ask the small claims clerk what to do. Usually you can file a written request for costs within a few days of the judgment. 

Some costs are not recoverable. You can't recover for such personal expenses as taking time off from work to prepare for or attend court, paying a babysitter, parking your car, or making photocopies of evidence.

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