In South Carolina, you can sue your home contractor for construction defects in Magistrate’s Court (more commonly known as small claims court). There, you can sue for money damages of up to $7,500. If you believe your damages were actually more than $7,500, you can either sue your contractor in Circuit Court, or you can sue in Magistrate’s Court and give up your rights to any monies over the $7,500 cap. Magistrate’s Court offers a fairly expedited, simplified procedure for recovery.
There are no complex procedures or remedies. While you can request a jury, it is more common in Magistrate’s Court for there to be a single judge, who awards plaintiffs specific dollar amounts between $0 and $7,500. For many small-scale disputes with contractors, this can be an ideal mechanism for resolving conflicts – for example, over painting, tiling, or landscaping projects where the amount in controversy is probably not enough to merit hiring an attorney.
The mere fact that you are having a dispute with your contractor is not a reason to run to the nearest South Carolina courthouse. Court is not the best first step. If you can avoid the irritation of litigation, both you and your contractor will be better off.
Make your best effort to negotiate outside of court. Have a conversation with the contractor about the issues that are bothering you. Was there a misunderstanding in your contract about the timeline for completion? Was the project more difficult than the contractor anticipated? Did the materials cost more than initially quoted? There might be a way to reasonably negotiate the situation between the two of you without escalating the dispute.
Talking doesn’t always solve the problem, though. If this approach fails, the next is to send the contractor a demand letter. Nolo has a helpful guide on writing demand letters, which tend to be taken more seriously than mere oral complaints, especially if you note that you are “reserving all legal rights should a resolution not be worked out.” This can serve as a wakeup call to the contractor that unless he gets his act together and comes to the bargaining table, he’ll find himself in court.
Moreover, sending a demand letter is wise from a strategic perspective, because it can become evidence to the judge that you did your best to avoid litigation. You gave your contractor a reasonable opportunity to fix the errors or refund your money rather than immediately burdening the judicial system. If your contractor ignores the letter and refuses to bargain, he will come off as the unreasonable party.
Apart from the strict $7,500 monetary limit in Magistrate’s Court, South Carolina’s statutes of limitations impose time limits on when you can file your case. The most common legal causes of action against a contractor are for breach of contract (“I paid him $2,000 up front, and he didn't finish!”) and property damage (“He broke my wall while he was repainting my house!”).
South Carolina has a three-year limit under S.C. Code § § 15-3-520 for breach of contract as well as a three-year limit under S.C. Code § 15-3-530(4) for property damage. These are “hard deadlines,” which a judge will not excuse if you’re running late. Therefore, be sure to file any lawsuits within three years of the beginning of the project.
Under South Carolina law on jurisdiction, you can sue your contractor in either the county where he (or his office) is located, or where a substantial portion of the contract arose (that is, your home, if that’s where the construction work was done). If you are unsure of your contractor’s county or your county, South Carolina’s website offers aconvenient map of all 46 counties in the state. Every single county has a Magistrate’s Court.
When you go to Magistrate’s Court, look for the clerk’s office. The clerk will know the procedure for filing the lawsuit. The clerk will charge you a filing fee set by statute. The fee will typically be $80, which covers service of the relevant documents on the defendant. If you need to serve additional defendants, or subpoena any witnesses (for example, subcontractors), your fee will increase.
Be sure to bring a blank check to the courthouse, or check your county’s website before you head over, since these fees will change from time to time.
The next step is to file your actual lawsuit. You will need to fill out a document called a Complaint. The Complaint allows you to describe your dispute in a narrative fashion. It also allows you to attach copies of invoices, receipts, or photographs that you with to present to the judge as evidence. Be honest. Anything that you say will be under oath, meaning that any lies could make you guilty of perjury.
Note that you’ll need to provide your name and contact information, as well as the name and contact information of the contractor you are suing. If your contractor is a business (rather than just an individual), you can search for the business’s official information through the South Carolina Secretary of State website.
After these documents are filed, the 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.
Magistrate’s Court is a little less formal than Circuit Court. The rules of evidence are relaxed, there are generally no attorneys present, and you can speak more freely in explaining your claim. Your goal is simply to explain to the judge what happened, and prove it with evidence. A good way to rehearse this presentation is by explaining your claim to a friend or family member, trying to keep your statement to just a few minutes. Remember, judges have large caseloads and see dozens of litigants every day. Make the judge’s job easier by keeping your presentation simple and concise.
Beyond having a good oral presentation, you should bring evidence to court on your trial date. In the context of home improvement contractor litigation, the most important evidence will likely 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 paid; 3) Any correspondence, such as emails or letters, that you’ve sent to the contractor outlining the facts of your dispute; 4) Photographs of your home before and after the construction work, especially photos that show shoddy workmanship.
In some circumstances, you might also bring witnesses with you to court to describe elements of the story to the judge.
What happens if you win your lawsuit in South Carolina Magistrate’s Court? You could receive a judgment for all of the money you asked for, or you might be awarded some percentage of that money. (This could occur if, for example, the judge decided that your contractor had valid defenses or you were unable to prove the full extent of your claimed damages).
Either way, you’ll want to collect on the judgment. If the defendant – who is now called the “judgment debtor” – is honorable, he will pay you fairly quickly. Most reputable businesses will pay their judgments, since failure to do so can harm their credit relationship with lending institutions.
If he does not, you’ll need to return to court and fill out further paperwork with your county clerk. While the procedure varies slightly from one county to the next, you’ll likely need to file an Execution of Judgment form. The clerk will sign this, and send it to your contractor. This will notify the contractor of the default one final time, but will give you a legal avenue with which to attach assets in bank accounts or have the local sheriff reposes property.