Getting Relief in Small Claims Court
Small claims court is designed to settle disputes with a relatively small dollar value. The issue may be important to you or even a little emotional, but the compensatory damages are limited to just a few thousand dollars. The amount you seek is usually the determining factor for whether you should bring your claim in small claims court or a higher court, like superior court.
Several types of matters can be settled in small claims court. For example:
- You may choose to take your landlord to court over a maintenance issue in your building.
- If you are injured by your neighbor’s dog, small claims court may help you settle the dispute.
- When you pay a mechanic to fix your car, but they do not complete the job.
The purpose of small claims court is to settle minor disputes without the high cost of attorney’s charges and filing fees. You will act as your own attorney in preparing and presenting your case, so you need to be prepared. Here are the steps you will go through to bring your case to small claims court.
Identify the Defendant
This may seem obvious, but you want to make sure you get it right. It is important to figure out who is legally responsible for your damages, even if there is more than one person at fault. In a landlord-tenant dispute, you may need to sue the property manager and the building owner. If you sustain an injury tripping on a broken sidewalk, you first have to determine who owns the sidewalk and who is responsible for its maintenance.
Set an Amount for Damages
Add up all of your costs associated with the incident to determine how much money to sue for. In most situations, if you win your case, the court will seek to make you whole.
What that means is that if you were not responsible for any portion of what happened to you, the responsible party, presumably the defendant, should cover all of your costs. Remember to add in your court filing fees and lost wages from days of work you missed because of the incident. Once you set the amount, the court will not usually award you any more than you ask for, so don’t leave anything out.
Send Your Demands to the Defendant
Going to court is supposed to be a last-resort remedy. The court likes to see you have made an attempt to settle your dispute on your own. Send a letter to the defendants outlining your version of the problem and what you expect from them. Send the letter by certified mail, so you have evidence it was received. Remember, you are acting as your own attorney here and gathering evidence to present to the court.
Secure a Jurisdiction
There are small claims courts in most jurisdictions throughout the country. It is important you file your case in the right one. For a personal injury claim, the jurisdiction would be where the incident took place:
- If it was on a sidewalk in the village, you will go to the village court.
- If you were in a minor accident on a state highway, you need to determine the town where the accident took place.
- When it comes to suing a business for breach of contract because they promised to mow your lawn once a week and instead let it grow all summer without cutting, you may need to file in the court where the business is established.
Not sure? You can ask the court clerk for guidance on jurisdiction.
Prepare Your Complaint
At this point you may be practiced at complaining, but this is the name of the formal document you need to prepare for the court. Check with the court clerk for the forms and filing procedures. In the complaint, you will start by defining the parties, listing each by name and address. Then, you will detail the incident step by step. Finally, the complaint will spell out what you want from the defendant.
Gather Documentation and Witness Statements
As part of your case, you need to submit evidence for the court to consider. The defendant may come to court and tell a completely different story than yours. You will want to have documentation of the details you present to the court.
Secure copies of any accident reports, get witnesses to write their version of the story, and collect your bills to show the amount of your expenses related to the incident. Be thorough, since it is better to have too much evidence than not enough.
Schedule a Mobile Notary
Since there is no attorney involved with your small claims court case, you will definitely need a notary. Attorneys receive the privilege of signing documents without a notary. The court trusts that as officers of the court, attorneys can be trusted to be who they say they are. Everyone else needs a notary to confirm their signatures.
The witness statements you gather should be signed and notarized along with the complaint you will file with the court. A mobile notary can meet you and each of your witnesses in locations convenient to you to notarize all your signatures. You can schedule a notary for each of your witnesses, and the notary can bring the original documents to you when you are ready to sign the complaint. Then you will have all of your papers in order and ready to go to the court.
The amount of money you can be awarded by small claims court is limited by each state. You should check with your state to be sure you know what the limits are. There is a lot to do to prepare a case for small claims court, but it can be worth it in the end to get the money that is owed you. Call Superior Notary Services to line up a mobile notary for your case, or use our online contact form to get in touch. We are available for 24/7 scheduling, and all our notaries are bonded and licensed.
Tips For Succeeding in Small Claims Court