Suing Out-of-State Defendants in Small Claims Court

Learn how to sue an out-of-state company in small claims court in a different state.

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

Understanding how to sue someone in a different state before filing a lawsuit is essential to ensure you file the case in the proper place. Otherwise, the court will dismiss your action, and you'll need to start again. Worse yet, you might run out of time to refile the case, called breaching the statute of limitations period, and lose your right to sue.

If you're considering filing a small claims case across state lines, you should know that it's unusual to use small claims for an action in another state. Typically, the dollar amounts allowed in small claims cases aren't large enough to justify traveling great distances to go to court. In most instances, filing in small claims court will make financial sense when the dispute is against a nearby person or business.

Where You Must File a Lawsuit When Suing Someone

You'll follow the venue rule when deciding which small claims court to file your case. In most states, you can sue in one of the following places:

  • the defendant lives
  • where the incident occurred (verify that your state allows this option), or
  • if a business is involved, where its main place of business is located.

These are general guidelines, and your state's laws might give you other options. For instance, you might be able to sue a business in your state if the company regularly does business there, even if located elsewhere.

Overall, the primary takeaway is that if the person or business you want to sue lives far from where you live, you might need to sue in another state. How you should proceed will depend on the governing jurisdiction and venue laws. For more information, see If, When & Where to File a Lawsuit.

Suing Someone Out-of-State in Small Claims Court

The basic rule is that state courts–including small claims courts–only have the power to hear cases involving individuals who live in or are present in the state when the incident occurs or who have regular contact with the state (often by doing business). Lawyers call this jurisdiction.

If you want to sue someone who lives in another state, you will have to sue in the state where the person lives, not in the state where you live. Often you can file papers with the court by mail, but you'll have to follow the state's rules when serving the court papers on the defendant.

Also, you should expect to show up in person on court day. However, some states allow people on active duty in the military—and occasionally others—to present their case entirely in writing.

Find the answers to more preliminary questions in Small Claims Court FAQ.

Exceptions for Out-of-State Individuals

There are, however, circumstances under which you can use your state's small claims court to sue an out-of-state resident:

  • Out-of-state residents can successfully be sued in your state if you manage to serve them with court papers while they're physically within your state's borders and if the dispute arose in your state. For instance, suppose you live in Florida and a nonresident injures you or damages your property while he or she is in Florida, or a contract with a nonresident was negotiated, performed, or violated in Florida.
  • A nonresident with a vehicle accident in your state can be sued in your state's small claims court no matter where that person lives. Similarly, a nonresident vehicle owner can be sued no matter where the person lives if his or her car was being driven in your state by another person and was involved in an accident. Contact your small claims court clerk for details or your court's self-help center.
  • The out-of-state owner of real property—including owners of apartments and other rental housing—located in your state can be sued here on claims relating to that property.

Learn more about personal jurisdiction and the minimum contacts someone must have to be sued in your state.

Exceptions for Out-of-State Businesses

Most large national businesses can be sued in any state, but smaller businesses that are headquartered in another state, do no business in your state, and have no physical presence in your state can be sued only in the states where they operate.

Here are the specific rules you'll follow.

When it comes to suing a business in small claims court, you can sue any business that is organized (incorporated or established as an LLC) in your state. Also, you can bring suit against any business–whether incorporated or not–if one of the following conditions is true:

  • the business was responsible for injuring you or damaging your property in your state, and you can find a way to serve your court papers on the business in your state
  • the business breaches a contract with you that was negotiated or was to be performed in your state, and you can find a way to serve your court papers on the business in your state
  • the business has an office, warehouse, retail establishment, restaurant, or another physical facility in your state, even if that business is headquartered or organized elsewhere, or
  • the business does regular business in your state by selling products or services, employing a sales rep who calls on you personally or by phone to solicit business, sending you a catalog to solicit your business, or placing advertising in your state's media.

Example 1. While on vacation in Florida, you slip and fall in the ticket office of a small, locally-owned commuter airline operating only in Florida. When you return home to Maine, you file suit against the airline for your injuries in small claims court. The judge will toss out your case because Maine courts don't have jurisdiction to hear a case involving a defendant who doesn't operate, advertise, or solicit business in Maine. The only place you can sue the airline is in Florida.

Example 2. You're at home in Maine and planning your vacation to Florida, and you slip and fall in the ticket office of a national airline with its headquarters in Florida. You can sue the airline for your injuries in small claims court. The fact that the airline does business in Maine gives this state's courts the power to hear your case, even though it has its headquarters elsewhere.

Example 3. You own a small graphic design company in Maine and negotiate a contract over the phone and via email with a clothing designer in New York to design business cards and signs for a new store that the clothing designer plans to open in Maine. You complete the work on time, but the designer refuses to pay you. Can you sue the designer in Maine's small claims court? Yes. It's arguable whether the contract was negotiated in Maine, but it's a fact that you performed the work in Maine. You can sue the designer in the Maine small claims court if you can serve your court papers on the designer within Maine's borders.

Find out about the most common types of lawsuits filed in small claims court.