Property Damage Cases in Small Claims Court

Learn the rules about bringing a claim and how to calculate your damages

Property damage cases are one of the regular types of lawsuits that come before judges in small claims courts regularly—they’re a staple. In most cases, a plaintiff files an action against a defendant claiming that the defendant negligently (accidentally) or intentionally damaged the plaintiff’s property. The plaintiff brings the lawsuit seeking monetary reimbursement for the damage.

In this article, you’ll learn about the elements you’ll need to prove in a negligent or intentional property damage case. Find out how much time you have to bring a property damage action in your state.

Negligent Property Damage in Small Claims

Like good taste or bad wine, negligence can be easy to recognize but hard to define. In essence, it occurs when someone is careless and damages your property as a result. Legally speaking, negligence is defined as follows:

  • you suffer property damage as a result of another person's conduct, and
  • that person didn't act with reasonable care under the circumstances.

If you can prove both elements, you’ll have a valid legal claim based on that person's negligence. Keep in mind that you’ll also have to prove the extent of the damage suffered—the cost to either fix or replace the property—before you’ll receive a money judgment from the small claims court judge. If you forget to prove the cost of your damages, the judge won’t award you anything.

Example. Jake knows the brakes on his ancient Saab need repair but does nothing about it. One night, Jake parks the car on a hill and the brakes fail, causing the car to roll across the street, destroying Keija's persimmon tree. Keija sues Jake for $600, the reasonable value of the tree. At trial, Jake admits to the faulty brake issue, and Keija brings in an estimate proving that the value of the tree is $600. Jake will lose because he did not act with reasonable care under the circumstances, and Keija will receive a money judgment for $600.

Failing to Act Reasonably

Negligence can also occur when a person with a duty or responsibility to act fails to do so. For example, an electrician who fails to check the wiring in a room where you tell him you saw some frightening sparks would be negligent.

Another obvious situation involving negligence would be one where a car or bus swerves into your traffic lane and sideswipes your fender. The driver of the offending vehicle has a duty to operate the vehicle in such a way as not to damage other cars. By swerving into your lane, it’s likely that he has failed to do so. Find out more about negligence caused by a car accident.

A situation in which negligence could be difficult to show would involve your neighbor's tree falling on the car parked in your driveway. Here you have to be ready to prove that the tree was in a weakened condition (such as age, disease, or a bad root system), and the neighbor knew about it but was negligent in failing to do something about it. If the tree looked to be in good health, your neighbor probably had no reason to know to remove it or prop it up, and therefore, wouldn’t be negligent.

Here are more examples in which a person or business failed to act with reasonable care and as a result, was negligent:

  • While playing with his kids in his small backyard, Kevin hits a ball over the fence, smashing a neighbor's window.
  • While upgrading Eva's computer, Joshua carelessly installs the wrong chip, which crashes Eva's hard drive and ruins the computer.
  • RapidMail Inc., a local courier service, loses several time-sensitive messages and fails to notify the sender of the problem.

To help you determine whether you have a good case based on someone else's negligence, answer the following questions:

  • Did the person whose act (or failure to act) damaged your property behave reasonably? Or to put it another way, would you have behaved differently if you were in that person's shoes?
  • Was your own conduct a significant cause of the injury?

If you are entirely at fault, you can expect to lose, of course. But, if you’re partially at fault, you could still win something in some states. Keep reading to find out why.

When Multiple People Are at Fault

Comparative or contributory negligence exists when you and one or more other parties responsible for the damages you suffer. For instance, if two coworkers playfully toss the priceless Ming vase you display on your office desk and drop it, they’d likely both be at fault and liable for the damages. You might bear some percentage of negligence as well, given that a trier of fact (a judge or jury) might find it unreasonable to keep a priceless vase at your work station. When dealing with a situation in which more than one person might have contributed to your loss, you’ll sue them all.

Example. If the person who damaged your property behaved unreasonably (ran a red light when drunk) and you were acting sensibly (driving at 30 mph in the proper lane), you probably have a good case. If you were a little at fault (slightly negligent) but the other fellow was much more at fault (very negligent), you can probably still recover most of your losses, because most courts follow a legal doctrine called comparative negligence. This involves subtracting the percentage of your negligence from 100% to find out how legally responsible the other party is. Thus, if a judge finds that one person (drunk and speeding) was 80% at fault, and the other (slightly inattentive) was 20% at fault, the slightly inattentive party can recover 80% of his or her loss.

Find out about comparative negligence in the context of a slip and fall accident.

When to Talk to a Lawyer About Negligent Property Damage

While it isn’t hard for legal professionals to predict fault in most cases, unusual situations can arise—and it’s always a bit challenging if you have limited legal experience because of all the factors involved (and an article of this length can’t address every contingency).

So if you have suffered a substantial loss at the hands of someone else, consider speaking with an attorney. If the attorney doesn’t feel the case has enough value to warrant representation, you can always file a small claims action on your own. You’ll have the opportunity to present evidence supporting your point of view and let the judge decide.

Find out how to start settlement negotiations by writing a demand letter.

Intentional Property Damage in Small Claims

Not all property damage occurs as a result of an accident. You also have the right to recover money damages if someone intentionally damages your property.

Example. Sean and Jemma are neighbors who can't stand the sight of each other, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that both are prize-winning rose growers. When Sean took first place in the local exotic rose contest, Jemma was angry, frustrated, and jealous. She left her hose running on purpose and drowned Sean’s roses. By bringing a small claims case, Sean should be able to recover the value of his rose bushes from Jemma. He might even get some money for emotional distress.

Calculating Small Claims Property Damage

Calculating damages in a property damage case can be fairly straightforward. In most instances, you can recover the amount of money it would take to fix the damaged item, or, if it is destroyed, to replace it. You’ll want to get several reasonable (and reputable) estimates of the cost to fix or replace the item, keeping in mind that the judge will lean toward whichever option is most cost-effective.

Example. John Quickstop plows into Melissa Caretaker's new BMW, smashing the left rear fender. How much can Melissa recover? Melissa is entitled to recover the amount it would cost to fix, or if necessary, replace, the damaged part of her car if John won't pay voluntarily. Melissa should get several estimates from reputable body and fender shops and sue for the amount of the lowest one.

It’s important to note that when the cost of fixing the item exceeds its total value, you are not entitled to a new or better object than the one that was damaged–only to have your loss made good. Had Melissa been driving a ten-year-old car, the cost to fix the fender might have exceeded the value of the entire car. In this situation, she would be entitled to the value of the car, not what it would cost to repair it. In short, the most you can recover is the fair market value of a damaged item (the amount you could have sold it for) figured one minute before the damage occurred. From this amount, you have to subtract the item's scrap value, if any.

Insurance and Property Damage

If you own real property (land and structures) that another person or a force of nature damages, it’s unlikely that you’ll turn to small claims court to cover your loss. Virtually all landowners have property insurance to cover such losses. Mortgagors and lenders won’t finance a purchase of real property or make a loan secured by land unless the borrower obtains and maintains sufficient property insurance. Even those owners whose land is unencumbered by mortgages or loans have property insurance–it's the obvious, smart way to protect their investment.

What property insurance will cover depends on the policy. Specific policy limits–the most that the insurance company will pay for a loss—also limit the amount the insurance company will pay. If your policy covers the property damage and litigation ensues, the insurance company will assign an attorney to represent you—so in most cases, you won’t find yourself in small claims court. But it can happen.

Example. Suppose your commercial building is damaged when your neighbor's sewer line ruptures, sending water down the hill and into your first floor. Most property policies will provide coverage in this situation. But let's say that even though your property insurance covers the $10,000 worth of damage to the walls, floors, and basement, you have a $1,500 deductible. While your insurance company has the right to go after the neighbor to recoup what’s been paid, including the deductible portion, not all claims are worth pursuing. In such a case, you might have to recover the deductible yourself in small claims court.

For this property claim in the example, you'd have to prove to the judge that the neighbor negligently maintained his sewer pipes. The type of evidence you’d want to present would be that:

  • he knew that the pipes were already leaking
  • that the pipes were old and he knew or should have known they were at risk of breaking, or
  • that the pipes were recently installed improperly.

In other words, you’ll want to prove that the neighbor knew or should have known that the pipes could break. The stronger the proof you provide—for instance, testimony from a plumbing expert who inspected the ruptured pipes would be ideal—the more likely you’d prevail.

Then, of course, you’ll also need to prove how much the repairs cost you. You’ll do that with photos, repair estimates, receipts, the neighbor’s testimony (although such an admission would be unlikely) or through the plumbing expert’s testimony. Find out about presenting evidence and testimony in small claims cases.

Statute of Limitations on Property Damage Cases

You only have so much time to file your property damage case in court, and the timing will depend on the laws of your state. If you don’t file your lawsuit before the statute of limitations period runs out, your opponent can object at any point during the litigation, and your case will get thrown out. If you aren’t sure how long you have, one of the first things you’ll want to do is find out how much time you have to file your property damage lawsuit in your state.

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