Personal Injury (and Mental Distress) Cases in Small Claims Court

Learn about the different types of personal injury cases.

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

Personal Injury Cases

Most personal injury cases are based on a claim that someone has been negligent (careless), which resulted in personal injury to another person. A few cases are based on claims of intentional injury. In both types of cases, you must show that your injury was caused by someone's negligent or intentional behavior. The only exception is in cases involving a defective product, in which case a different legal doctrine applies.

In some states you cannot file a personal injury case in small claims court, even if the amount of damages is less than the maximum. So, before you begin a personal injury case, check your state's rules. Also, check that the amount of your claim is within the small claims court jurisdictional limits. Many personal injury cases involve amounts of money that are over the small claims maximum and should therefore be pursued in formal court.

Before you sue someone for an injury, consider whether it was really caused by negligence. If so, the person is legally liable to make good for your loss. If not (you trip and fall down a perfectly safe set of stairs), you have no right to recover, no matter how serious your injury. If in doubt, go ahead and sue, but be prepared to deal with the negligence question as well as prove the extent of your injury.

Mental Distress Cases

You do not have to suffer a physical injury to recover in court based on someone else's negligent or intentionally harmful behavior. Intentional or negligent infliction of mental distress are lawsuits that can be based on nonphysical injuries. Generally, to support a court case, the other person's behavior must:

  • be negligent, violate a law, be outrageous, be intended to cause you harm, or be done in reckless disregard of whether it will cause you harm, and
  • cause you emotional distress that is serious (for a negligence case) or severe (for a case where you claim the person's actions were intentional).

This second element is sometimes the hardest to prove in a mental distress case. Proving that you suffered emotional harm can be difficult and often more expensive than a small claims case would warrant. But if you have seen a doctor or therapist and you can get a written statement that you've suffered emotional distress, you could use that for evidence. Of course, your own testimony will probably be your primary form of proof.

Product Liability Cases

If your vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, steam iron, lawn mower, or other product malfunctions and you are injured as a result, you are entitled to recover from the manufacturer or other defendant (usually the person you bought or rented the product from) without proving that the defendant was negligent.

When an injury is serious, product liability cases are always filed in formal court. Now and then, however, a defective product will cause a more minor injury, in which case a small claims court lawsuit may be appropriate. It's best to sue both the manufacturer and seller of the defective product. Be prepared to prove:

  • the product really did malfunction
  • you were using the product as the manufacturer or seller intended or as they should have foreseen, and
  • you were injured as a result.

Sexual Harassmant Cases

Another area in which the number of small claims cases is growing involves sexual harassment in the workplace, which is illegal under both federal and state law. Small claims court is a particularly helpful option for people having trouble finding an attorney because their cases will be hard to prove or not worth much in damages. Before going to court, you must file a formal complaint, with either the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's equivalent. Wherever you file, your object before going to small claims court is to get a "right to sue" letter, meaning that the agency will not pursue the matter on its own–a likely outcome, given that these agencies get numerous complaints. Once you've got that letter, you can proceed to court.