If You Get Sued in Small Claims Court

Learn what to do -- and not to do -- if someone sues you in small claims court.

Updated By , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

Getting served with legal papers isn't fun. But you don't need to panic if you find yourself at the wrong end of a lawsuit in small claims court—you have options. Here's a checklist you can use to evaluate the case:

  • read the paperwork
  • check for a procedural problem
  • negotiate a settlement
  • try mediation
  • decide whether to default or fight the case, or
  • if you must pay the debt, request installment payments.

You'll find more information about each step below, or look for the answer to your question in Small Claims Court FAQ.

Read the Small Claims Paperwork

It's easy enough to set aside the complaint, but this isn't a problem you'll want to ignore. Read through each page thoroughly and find out:

  • how much time you have to respond to the action
  • when you're expected to go to court, and
  • who is suing you and why.

If you have a difficult time determining any of these things, you should consider meeting with an attorney or making an appointment at your small claims court's self-help center as soon as possible.

Check for a Procedural Problem

Sometimes the plaintiff—the person suing you—doesn't follow all of the procedural legal rules properly. Do not be tempted to simply not show up in court just because you think there's a procedural defect in the plaintiff's case. A judge can easily overlook even a major technical problem and, as a result, enter a judgment against you by default. If this happens, you will have to go to the trouble of requesting that the judgment be set aside (vacated).

For instance, here are a few problems to consider:

  • Were you served properly? The plaintiff must be sure that you receive the paperwork with sufficient time to respond. Perhaps the plaintiff's papers were left with a neighbor or was served late, so you didn't have the correct number of days in which to respond to the plaintiff's complaint. Find out about serving court papers.
  • Did the plaintiff file in the right court? The plaintiff needs to comply with the venue (location) and jurisdiction (the court's authority to hear a case) requirements when choosing the court.

Contact the clerk immediately to explain the problem with the way the plaintiff delivered the court papers or with the court location and ask that the case be delayed (continued) to a date that is convenient for you or transferred to the correct court. If the court clerk can't help you, then seek legal assistance.

Out-of-state defendants. If you don't live or do business in a state where you are sued, a court normally doesn't have power (jurisdiction) to enter a valid judgment against you, unless court papers are served on you while you happen to be in that state. Exceptions exist for people who live out of state but own land in the state where the lawsuit was filed or got into a traffic accident in that state.

If you are an out-of-state resident and receive small claims papers via the mail, promptly write a letter to the court explaining that you do not believe you are subject to the court's jurisdiction. Stay in touch with the court clerk until you are sure the case has been dismissed. Learn more about filing against an out-of-state defendant in small claims.

Try to Negotiate a Settlement

If the plaintiff has some right on his side, but you believe you are being sued for too much, contact the plaintiff and try to work out a settlement. One good approach is to call, write, or email the plaintiff and make an offer. How much to offer depends on the strength of your defense and whether you think the plaintiff's estimate is reasonable or substantially inflated.

Assuming the plaintiff has a strong legal position (that is, you probably are legally responsible for the plaintiff's injuries or damages) and is asking the court for a reasonable amount, you might begin by making an initial offer to pay about half of the plaintiffs demand. Even with a strong case, the plaintiff may be motivated to accept your lowball offer, if for no other reason than to save the time it takes to prepare for and appear in court.

More likely, your offer will set in motion a little dance of offer and counteroffer, with an eventual compromise of somewhere between 65% and 80% of the plaintiff's original request. If the plaintiff is asking for way too much, or you are not sure that a judge would rule in the plaintiff's favor, you'll want to offer less. Learn more about writing a settlement offer letter.

Suggest Mediation If Want to Avoid Conflict

If negotiation doesn't solve the problem, mediation is almost always beneficial to the defendant, because the process tends to encourage a compromise settlement for a lower amount than the plaintiffs demand. Also, mediation gives the defendant a chance to raise issues that are not officially part of the plaintiff's lawsuit. For instance, in a dispute between neighbors, businesspeople, or relatives, it's often important to discuss and settle emotional concerns in addition to sorting out how much is owed.

Ask the small claims court clerk for help with mediation. In some states, small claims courts require parties to try mediation before a judge hears the case. Elsewhere, voluntary mediation is easily accessible, either right in the courthouse or at a nearby community mediation project. Ask the small claims court clerk where mediation is available in your area. Then contact the mediation project and enlist their help in bringing the plaintiff to the table.

Don't Show Up ("Default")

Assume you have no valid defense on the merits of the case. Perhaps you borrowed money under the terms of a written contract and haven't paid it back. If you know you'll lose, you might conclude that it makes little sense to fight back in court. Fine, but realize your decision to not show up will almost surely result in a default judgment against you. The judgment will probably be for the dollar amount demanded by the plaintiff, plus the amount of his filing fee and any reasonable costs of serving the papers on you. Find out how creditors collect money judgments.

Ask for Installment Payments

In several states, if you do not dispute the plaintiff's claim, but cannot afford to pay it all at once, the law allows you to request the right to make payments in installments. After checking with the small claims clerk to see that installment payments are an option in your state, your best bet might be to show up in court and explain your financial situation to the judge.

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