Class Actions (Group Lawsuits) in Small Claims Court

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In small claims court there is no such thing as a true class action lawsuit, where a number of people in a similar situation ask a court's permission to join together in one lawsuit against the same defendant. However, as many community and advocacy groups have discovered, if a large number of people with a particular grievance (pollution, noise, drug sales) sue the same defendant at the same time in small claims courts, something remarkably like a class action is created.

This technique was pioneered in the early 1980s by a group of determined homeowners who lived near the San Francisco airport. Several times, the group won more than 100 small claims court judgments against the City of San Francisco, based on excessive noise. They hired expert witnesses, did research, ran training workshops, and paid for legal advice when needed, as part of a coordinated effort to efficiently present their cases. The City of San Francisco tried to fend off these cases by arguing that the homeowners were, in effect, involved in a class action lawsuit and such suits are not permitted in small claims court. A California court of appeals disagreed, saying, "Numerous 'mass' actions against the City alleging that noise from the City airport constituted a continuing nuisance were neither too 'complex' nor had such 'broad social policy import' that they were outside the jurisdiction of Small Claims Court…" (City and County of San Francisco v. Small Claims Div., San Mateo Co., 190 Cal.Rptr. 340 (1983).)

A similar strategy has been widely used in many cities to shut down drug houses. Neighbors organize to sue landlords who rent to drug-selling tenants, claiming the legal theory of nuisance (use of property that unreasonably interferes with the rights of others). In these cases the neighbors claimed the nuisance was the emotional and mental distress that accompanied living near a drug house. Typically, each neighbor sues for the maximum amount. Thus, 30 neighbors who coordinate their small claims filings can, together, bring what amounts to a $225,000 case. A number of drug house cases have resulted in large judgments, and problems that had dragged on for months or years were quickly cleaned up.

Successful mass small claims lawsuits based on legal nuisance have also been brought against polluting refineries and factories.

Group lawsuits can lend credibility and weight to a "neighborhood quarrel." One of the purposes of the small claims court is to provide a neighborhood forum to resolve group lawsuits that might otherwise clog up the higher courts. If neighbors can band together to address problems of barking dogs, rock bands, drug houses, and so on, each individual's case will be that much more credible to the judge.

Select a small committee to coordinate your lawsuits. When a good-sized group of plaintiffs all sue the same defendant based on the same grievance, it's wise to coordinate strategy. This typically involves creating an informal plaintiffs' organization to organize intergroup communications, find witnesses and, if needed, expert witnesses, conduct a training session for everyone who will testify in court, discuss settlement offers, and, if requested, meet with the judge to plan how to efficiently and effectively present your multiple cases in court.

Losing defendants have the right to a new trial on appeal. People who sue and beat corporations, governmental entities, and other defendants with deep pockets in small claims court are likely to be faced with a tougher battle on appeal. That's because all losing small claims defendants have the right to appeal to superior court, where both sides have the right to be represented by a lawyer. 

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