Neighbor suing me in small claims court: What should I do?

Depending on whether you're at fault and the level of damage, it might make sense to either settle or defend yourself in court.

Question

My neighbor and I haven’t been getting along for some time now. He’s a younger guy, probably in his late 20s, and always throws loud parties and plays music at all hours. I’ve said things to him before but he’s always been dismissive. Last month, I marched over to his place during one of his parties and really lost my cool. I was waving my arms around, and spilled a soda can onto his speaker system. Today as I was coming home, I was served with process. He’s suing me for the $2,000 speaker system! What should I do?

Answer

First, don’t panic. Being served with process can be frightening, especially if you've never been sued or had interaction with the legal system before. Small claims actions are common. Remember that this is a civil action and not a criminal one. This means that the worst thing that can happen to you is that you’ll need to pay your neighbor money – but there are no police or jail time involved. Take a deep breath.

At the broadest level, if your neighbor sues you, you have two options: attempt to defend the lawsuit, or attempt to settle it before ever having to appear in court.

Defending against the lawsuit would mean that you’d need to assemble evidence as to why you didn't do whatever your neighbor says that you did. You could also admit that you did whatever he says you did, but contest the amount of damages that he’s claiming.

Here, it would be unlikely that you could deny spilling soda on the speaker system. It was a party, so he probably has multiple witnesses. You might be able to dispute that you actually caused $2,000 in damages, however – for example, it might be that you only ruined one speaker, or that the entire system really only costs $700.

Settling generally means that you would agree to pay your neighbor something, but less than what he is asking for in the complaint.

Settling a lawsuit has many advantages. First, it will save you time, money, and energy. You would not have to schlep to court repeatedly, assemble evidence, or present your arguments. You would merely need to negotiate with your neighbor. Settling a lawsuit privately also means you could come up with non-monetary aspects to the arrangement. A small claims court judge can ordinarily only decide on a monetary award.

Based on what you've described, there’s a lot to be said for settling the case. First, it would be difficult for you to deny the damage you caused. Second, you and your neighbor need to be able to have a conversation not just about the damage to his speaker system, but about your overall relationship – the hours that he plays music, the loudness, and your methods of response. If these nuanced issues are too difficult to work out between the two of you, you might suggest to your neighbor that you both participate in mediation.

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