The Most Common Lawsuits in Small Claims Court

From bad debt to nuisance to breach of contract, understand the legal basis of your case before you sue

By , J.D. · New York University School of Law

You may be told that because you are in small claims court, you don't need to have any legal knowledge or understanding about how legal claims work or what type of legal claim you have. You may be led to believe that all you will need to be able to do is:

  • briefly state the nature of your dispute
  • organize any evidence and witnesses you think will help back up your version of events
  • come to court on time
  • be polite, and
  • let the judge decide if your case is any good.

At a very basic level, this is decent advice–you expend little effort or thought and rely on the judge to do the heavy legal lifting. However, the problem with this approach is that the judge will not decide your case based on what seems morally "right" (although it never hurts to seize the high moral ground) or on whose presentation and witnesses are more convincing. Instead, the judge must apply exactly the same legal rules to your case as would be followed if your dispute was heard in a formal court.

Below is a list of the most common legal theories for small claims court cases and what you need to prove to establish each one. Before deciding to sue, you should consider whether the facts of your case fit the requirements of at least one of them. Unfortunately, the mere fact that you have suffered a trauma at the hands of another person does not automatically entitle you to a legal judgment. The law must support your contention that you were harmed by the illegal actions of another.

Bad Debt. A type of contract case. To prevail, you need to prove the debt exists, its amount, when payment was due, and that the person you are suing hasn't paid it or has only partially paid it.

Breach of Contract. One or more terms of a valid contract (written, oral, or implied) has been broken by the person you are suing. As a result, you have suffered a monetary loss.

Breach of Warranty. A written or implied warranty (assurance) extended to you by a merchant has been breached and, as a result, you have suffered a monetary loss–for example, a new or used car suffers mechanical problems while still covered by warranty.

Failure to Return a Security Deposit. Another variety of contract case that commonly arises between tenants and landlords. You need to prove that a deposit was made, that it was not returned (or only partially returned), and that the premises were sufficiently clean and undamaged when you left that the landlord owes you some or all of the amount withheld.

Libel or Slander (Defamation). To prove a libel or slander case, you must show that the other party said or wrote something untrue about you or your business, that others heard or read it and understood it was about you, and that it really did damage your reputation. (Public figures must also show that the person defaming them knew the offending statement or writing was false or was made in "reckless disregard of the truth.") Many states have placed an outright ban on bringing libel and slander cases in small claims court. However, even in states where you can bring a defamation case in small claims court, oftentimes judges don't take them seriously, because most untrue statements don't result in serious damage.

Nuisance. Someone's conduct creates a health or safety hazard to you (and perhaps to other neighbors or nearby property owners) or interferes with your ability to use and enjoy your property–for example, a factory makes so much noise that you and other nearby residents are kept awake all night.

Personal Injury. The negligent (careless) or intentional behavior of the person you are suing has caused you to suffer personal injury.

Product Liability. You or your property were injured by a defective product. If so, you qualify for recovery under the legal doctrine of strict liability, which holds the manufacturer responsible for the damages you suffered, without your having to prove negligence.

Professional Malpractice. A lawyer, doctor, or other professional's failure to use the ordinary skills of members of that profession results in you, as a client or patient, being harmed (in the case of a lawyer or accountant, you must suffer a monetary loss).

Property Damage. The negligent (careless) or intentional behavior of the person you are suing has damaged your personal property.

Other legal theories exist. The legal theories listed above are involved in more than 99% of small claims cases. There are dozens of more obscure types of lawsuits, each with its own legal requirements. If your case isn't covered here, you will want to do some research to determine whether your case meets the qualifications of some other legal theory.

Here is an example of why it's so important to establish not only that you have suffered a loss, but also that the defendant is legally required to compensate you.

EXAMPLE: One night, someone entered the garage in Sue's apartment complex, smashed her car window, and stole her custom car stereo worth $600. Upon discovery of the theft, and after reporting it to the police, Sue promptly filed suit against the landlord in small claims court. As part of preparing for her day in court, Sue got several witnesses willing to testify that her car had been vandalized and obtained a copy of the police investigation report. She also got several estimates as to the cost of repairing the damage to the car window and replacing the stereo.

In preparing for her case, Sue overlooked one crucial thing. Under the circumstances, the building owner wasn't liable. He had never promised (either orally or in writing) to keep the garage locked. In addition, he had never locked the garage or otherwise led Sue to believe that he would do so. The judge determined that all the tenants knew or should have known that anyone could gain access to the garage, either from inside or outside the building, and that there had been no previous crimes committed there. The judge concluded that, in failing to lock the garage, the building owner was neither in violation of a contract nor guilty of any negligent behavior. As he explained to Sue when he ruled for the landlord, the legal situation she faced was little different than it would have been if her car had been damaged on the street.

Now let's take this same situation, but change a few facts. Let's assume the lease Sue signed with the landlord stated that Sue would be assigned a parking place in a "secure garage." Let's also assume that the garage had always been locked until seven days before the theft occurred when the lock broke. Finally, let's assume that Sue and other tenants had asked the owner to fix the lock the day after it broke, but that he hadn't "gotten around to it." In this situation, Sue should win. The landlord made a contractual promise to the tenants (to keep the garage locked) and then failed to keep it though he'd had plenty of time to fulfill his obligation. The breach of contract allowed the thief access to the car.

The same logic applies to defendants. To defend a case well, a defendant needs to understand the essential legal elements of the case the plaintiff is attempting to prove. Once armed with this information, the defendant will be in good shape to try to convince the judge that at least one essential legal requirement is missing.

Check your state's small claims court rules. Many small claims courts limit the types of cases they will decide in addition to restricting the dollar amount of damages you can claim. For example, Rhode Island's small claims court only allows breach of contract claims and claims by consumers for damages connected with retail products or services. Ask your small claims court clerk or review your small claims court's rules to make sure your type of case can be heard.