Can I split up my small claims court lawsuit to avoid the dollar limit?

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Question:

I just had my kitchen redone. The contractor messed up in two places, installing the floor tile unevenly and botching some of the electrical work. I just paid $10,000 to have his inept work repaired. I want to sue in small claims court, but in my state (California) the maximum is $7,500. Because the contractor did more than one thing wrong, can I simply file two $5,000 lawsuits?

Answer:

Unfortunately, you can't split up claims in small claims court. As long as your kitchen work was covered by one contract, you are limited to filing one lawsuit. If you signed two different contracts with the same contractor -- one for the floor and one for the electrical work -- then you may be able to file two separate small claims cases on the theory that the contractor breached two separate agreements. However, in your situation, you're limited to one lawsuit that must fit under the $7,500 maximum. By filing in small claims court, you will forever waive the additional $2,500.

Although this may seem tough to swallow (no question, the small claims court maximum should be much higher), it still may make sense to use small claims court for three reasons.

  • First, you may not win the entire $10,000 anyway. The contractor, after all, will likely put up a defense (he may even have been through this process before).
  • Second, if you hire a lawyer to help you sue in superior court, the lawyer's fee is likely to be more than $2,500.
  • Third, it takes longer and is more complex to go to superior court, meaning that even if you win the entire $10,000, you'll work harder for the money and get it months later.

If you haven't done so already, write the contractor a businesslike demand letter reviewing what's happened so far and asking for the $10,000. Make sure to mention that you will promptly file in small claims court if he doesn't pay -- you may get results right there, or at least an opportunity for negotiation. If not, look in the mirror, and start practicing this simple phrase, in your best TV drama voice: "I'll see you in (small claims) court."

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