How to Proceed in Small Claims Court

It doesn't have to take years of waiting and expensive legal fees to have your day in court. In fact, you don't even need a lawyer. You can have a legal dispute resolved within a few months by suing in small claims court.

It will still take time and preparation, however. You can't expect to persuade a judge that you should be awarded $2,000 unless you're prepared to adequately explain the facts and legal theory that support your case.

(The "jurisdictional" limit of small claims court is $2,000. That is the maximum amount you can collect. Even if your claim is worth more, you waive the excess by suing in small claims court.)

Although lawyers are not permitted to represent you in small claims court, you can consult an attorney to better understand the law or how to present your case. The court also has staff advisers who can help with procedural issues.

Several Categories

Small claim cases generally fall into several broad categories: breach of contract, breach of warranty, negligence (often fender-bender auto accidents), defective products, intentional wrongful conduct (such as the case of a neighbor who is angry and destroys your valuable rose garden) and specific state statutes designed to protect consumers, such as one that allows a consumer to void certain contracts sold by door-to-door salesmen.

It is not enough to be prepared to show a monetary loss. You must understand the legal theory that justifies making the defendant pay for your loss.

There isn't room here to discuss all the legal theories that could be used to sue, but reviewing one hypothetical situation will help explain how to prepare your case.

Let's say Patty Plaintiff lives in an apartment complex with a secure, locked underground garage. One night Patty's car is vandalized by a thief who steals her $800 car stereo. Patty wants someone to blame so she sues the owner of the apartment building. With no other facts on her side, Patty will lose. The landlord has no legal duty to guarantee that his tenants' automobiles are secure from thieves.

On the other hand, if the facts were slightly different, Patty might have a case. If the garage lock was broken four weeks earlier, Patty had asked the landlord to repair it and the landlord knew there had been a rash of car burglaries in the neighborhood, Patty may be able to show that the landlord was negligent and that his negligence (or lack of reasonable care) was a legal cause of her loss. In other words, the damage to the car could have been prevented if the landlord had acted reasonably and fixed the garage lock in a timely fashion.

To win, Patty must be well prepared. First, she should review the lease to see if the landlord had any contractual obligations to provide a secured garage. If so, she may be able to sue for breach of contract as well as negligence, in which case she should bring the signed lease to court.

Patty should bring other evidence to court to support each of the crucial facts of her argument--that the garage door was broken, that she asked that it be fixed and that the landlord knew of the neighborhood burglaries. Pictures and diagrams are always helpful. Witnesses, such as other tenants who can say when they first noticed the broken lock, may be subpoenaed. You can also have witnesses prepare written statements of their testimony if they are unavailable to attend the hearing.

To commence the lawsuit, Patty must complete some court forms and have them served on the defendant. It is extremely important that she sues the correct legal entity, otherwise, once she wins she won't have anyone to collect from. If the landlord is a corporation or partnership, she should review her lease and other paper work to determine its correct legal name.

Time and Energy

Even though small claims court can be a relatively quick process, it still takes time and energy. And you don't want to waste your time unless you know that the defendant has sufficient resources to pay a judgment. You should also evaluate whether the possible recovery is worth the time and aggravation.

Finally, before you begin, it's worthwhile to review one of the several legal self-help books published about small claims court. Nolo Press' "Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court" ($14.95), by Ralph Warner, offers practical detailed advice about court procedures and an excellent summary of common legal issues.

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