Can I file a small claims court action against a neighbor who trespassed on and damaged my property?

Using small claims court to claim financial damages when a neighbor harms your valuable property.

Question

My neighbor in Brooklyn keeps trespassing on my property, walking his dog who steps all over my flower bed. I take pride in my flowers, and they’re worth hundreds of dollars. Now they’re ruined! Can I sue him in Small Claims Court to get him to stop walking his dog on my property, and to reimburse me for my flowers?

Answer

It sounds like you might have a claim against your neighbor for the fair market value of the flowers that his dog has destroyed.

It is important to remember, however, that the jurisdiction of the small claims court (in New York as in most states) is limited to monetary judgments. This means that even a judge who believes everything you say cannot issue a restraining order to prevent your neighbor from trespassing on your land, or order than he stop allowing his dog to destroy your flowers. All that the judge can do is order that he reimburse you for the fair market value of the flowers that have been destroyed, up to the state small claims limit ($5,000 in New York City).

If you want a judge to order that your neighbor do (or not do) something specific, you’ll need to sue him in a “regular” court – in this case, in New York State Supreme Court, where the judges’ powers are broader. Keep in mind, however, that a lawsuit in Supreme Court can be more complicated, time-consuming, and expensive than a lawsuit in small claims court.

Again, however, a small claims court judge can order that your neighbor pay you for the flowers. You’ll need to be able to prove both your claim (that your neighbor and his dog trespassed) and the amount of your damages (the approximate value of the flowers destroyed).

To prove the trespass, you might call a witness, such as another neighbor, who saw your neighbor and his dog on your property. Or, if you can set up a camera to take photos of future such trespasses (it sounds like this is a regular event) that might help, too.

To prove your damages, you might present the judge with copies of receipts for the flowers destroyed or, if you don’t have copies of the receipts, perhaps a copy of your credit card statement showing the purchases or a catalog showing what stores typically charge for those types of flowers.

It is unlikely that a judge will award punitive damages in a case like this; that is, the judge will probably award you only the actual monetary value of the property destroyed.

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