While Hawaii is the ultimate vacation spot for many Americans, it’s also home to some 1.5 million people. If you live in the Aloha State and want to improve your home, you might retain a contractor to handle a small-scale renovation project. What do you do if you run into a conflict with the contractor? Perhaps his work is deficient, or he doesn’t perform in a timely manner. Or perhaps he abandons the project completely before the agreed-upon work is finished.
How can you get your money back and get compensated for any damage that he caused? Hawaii’s Small Claims Court provides an effective potential means for you to adjudicate your case – without the need for an expensive lawyer.
In Hawaii, small claims court allows you to sue people or businesses for up to $5,000. In small claims court, the rules of evidence are somewhat relaxed, the idea being to make the court accessible for average citizens. Hawaii is divided into four primary judicial circuits, and you should review the Small Claims Brochure from your district: First (O’ahu), Second (Maui), Third (Hawai’i), and Fourth (Kaua’i). There is a small claims courthouse on each island of the state.
The first step is to determine whether your claims fall within the statute of limitations period. Hawaii’s statutes of limitations control the time within which you can sue. The purpose of these limits is to encourage litigants to file and resolve their claims quickly, to give individuals and businesses a sense of security.
The most common legal causes of action against a contractor tend to be breach of contract (“He promised to repaint my garage green, but he repainted it blue!”) and property damage (“She destroyed my electric system when she was supposed to be doing plumbing work!”).
Hawaii has a six-year limit under Haw. Rev. Code Ann. § 657-1 for breach of contract, and a two-year limit underHaw. Rev. Code Ann. § 657-7 for property damage. Thus, you should not delay in filing your claims.
First of all, you will be required to pay a filing fee of $35 (as of 2015) in order to file your lawsuit. You may pay additional fees if you want to sue multiple defendants or subpoena third-parties (like subcontractors or witnesses). You must sue the defendant either in the district where its offices are located, or where the event that is the basis for the lawsuit occurred – in other words, your home, where the contractor was supposed to do the work. Plaintiffs usually prefer to sue in their home county since this is more convenient and provides a certain degree of “home court advantage.”
Next, you’ll file a Statement of Claim with the clerk. You can fill it out in person or download it from your county’s website and bring the completed version to court. You’ll need to provide names, addresses, and phone numbers for both yourself and the defendant contractor (or the business entity name). You’ll then need to describe your claim. Finally, you’ll indicate the amount of money you believe you are owed. Don’t exaggerate; judges will require you to prove the full extent of those damages.
Perhaps the most important pitfall to avoid when writing your Claim and Summons is writing in legalese rather than plain English. Hawaii judges know the law and you do not need to delve into its finer points or cite precedent as an attorney would. Your role is to present the facts of your case clearly.
Once you've successfully filed the Statement of Claim, the court clerk will send a copy to the contractor along with a notice to appear in court on a specified date. That will be the date when you each orally present your case to a judge.
Your contractor will have an opportunity to file a document called an Answer. Like the Claim, this is a short form that allows the contractor to tell his side of the story.
An athlete wouldn’t go to the Olympics without practice. Similarly, you should not walk into court unprepared. Even for experienced attorneys, appearing before a judge is stressful. One can easily forget dates, documents, and damages.
Practice what you will say in your one to two minutes speaking to the judge by rehearsing in front of a friend or family member. Omit extraneous details. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see many plaintiffs every single day. Make the judge’s job easier by making the story short, simple, and to the point.
The evidence you present is another key aspect of convincing a judge of the merits of your claim. In the context of home improvement contractor litigation, evidence is crucial to avoiding a he-said/she-said situation, where you and your contractor simply disagree on whether or not he properly performed the agreed-upon duties.
Typically, the most important evidence will include: 1) Any written contracts between you and the contractor outlining the work he promised to perform, the timeline for performance, and the payment agreed upon; 2) Any proof of payments from you to the contractor, showing how much money you’ve already given him; 3) Any emails or letters you’ve sent to the contractor outlining your dispute; and 4) Photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy workmanship.
Depending on circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
The goal of going to court is to be able to say “Aloha!” to your money as quickly as possible. If the judge agrees with your version of the facts of the dispute, you will receive a piece of paper called a judgment. This indicates that you are owed a certain amount of money – perhaps everything that you asked for, or perhaps a portion of what you asked for.
Most business owners pay judgments fairly quickly, because they fear negative relationships with banks and lenders, not to mention destroying their reputation with potential new customers. If your contractor pays you, the case is over and you can file a Satisfaction of Judgment to tell the court.
However, your contractor might not be so forthcoming. If your contractor does not pay you within 30 days, you’ll need to return to court and fill out an application for a Garnishment. Generally, this procedure will allow you to collect money through your contractor’s bank accounts or other assets. Speak with your county clerk about the specific procedure in your county.