Suing Out-of-State Defendants in Small Claims Court

What to do if the person or business you want to sue is in another state

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Small claims courts are local. This makes sense, because the dollar amounts involved aren't large enough to justify people traveling great distances to go to court. A small claims court judicial district is the same as a county. The next county will have its own similar, but separate, small claims court. Normally, your dispute will be with a person or business located nearby. If so, all you really need to know is that you can sue in the county in which the defendant lives or, if a business is involved, where its main place of business is located.

Occasionally, however, the person or business you want to sue resides at a considerable distance from where you live. How you should proceed in this situation depends primarily on whether the defendant is located in your state or a different state. Here are the rules for suing out-of-state defendants in small claims court.

Individuals

The basic rule is that state courts–including small claims courts–only have the power (lawyers call this jurisdiction) to hear cases involving individuals who live in or are present in the state. If you want to sue someone who lives in another state and doesn't travel to your state, you will have to sue in the state where the person lives, not in the state where you live. Often you can file papers by mail, but normally you'll need to show up in person on court day. (Some states allow people on active duty in the military and occasionally others to present their case entirely in writing.)

There are, however, circumstances under which you can use your state's small claims court to sue an out-of-state resident:

  • Out-of-state residents can successfully be sued in-state if you manage to serve them with court papers while they're physically within your state's borders and if the dispute arose in your state. For example, you live in Florida and a nonresident injures you or damages your property while he or she is in Florida, or a contract with a nonresident was negotiated, performed, or violated in Florida. 
  • A nonresident who has a vehicle accident in your state may be sued in your state's small claims court no matter where that person lives. Similarly, a nonresident owner of a vehicle may be sued no matter where the person lives if his or her car was being driven in your state by another person and was involved in an accident. Contact your small claims court clerk for details.
  • The out-of-state owner of real property (including owners of apartments and other rental housing) located in your state may be sued here on claims relating to that property.

Businesses

When it comes to suing a business in small claims court, you may sue any business that is organized (incorporated or established as an LLC) in your state.

In addition, you may bring suit against any business–whether incorporated or not–if one of the following conditions is true:

  • the business was responsible for injuring you or damaging your property in your state and you can find a way to serve your court papers on the business in your state
  • the business breaches a contract with you that was negotiated or was to be performed in your state and you can find a way to serve your court papers on the business in your state
  • the business has an office, warehouse, retail establishment, restaurant, or other physical facility here, even if that business is headquartered or organized elsewhere, or
  • the business does regular business in your state by selling products or services, employing a sales rep who calls on you personally or by phone to solicit business, sending you a catalog to solicit your business, or placing advertising in your state's media.

The short story about suing out-of-state businesses. What it comes down to is that most large national businesses can be sued in any state, but smaller businesses that are headquartered in another state, do no business in your state, and have no physical presence in your state can be sued only in the states where they operate.

Example 1: While on vacation in Florida, you slip and fall in the ticket office of a small locally owned commuter airline that operates only in Florida. When you return home to Maine, you file suit against the airline for your injuries in small claims court. The judge will toss out your case, because Maine courts do not have the power (jurisdiction) to hear a case involving a defendant that doesn't operate, advertise, or solicit business in Maine. The only place you can sue the little airline is in Florida.

Example 2: You're at home in Maine and planning your vacation to Florida, and you slip and fall in the ticket office of a national airline that has its headquarters in Florida. This time, you can sue the airline for your injuries in small claims court. The fact that the airline does business in Maine gives this state's courts the power to hear your case, even though the airline has its headquarters elsewhere.

Example 3: You own a small graphic design company in Maine and negotiate a contract over the phone and via email with a clothing designer in New York to design business cards and signs for a new store that the clothing designer plans to open in Maine. You complete the work on time but the designer refuses to pay you. Can you sue the designer in Maine's small claims court? Yes. It's arguable whether the contract was negotiated in Maine, but it's a fact that you performed the work in Maine. Thus, you can sue the designer in Maine small claims court if you can serve your court papers on the designer within Maine's borders.

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