Small claims court is a platform where individuals and businesses resolve small monetary disputes. The small claims court limit is between $3,000 and $10,000, depending on the state where the court takes place. Almost anyone can file a claim if they are 18 years old or older, legally emancipated, and mentally competent.
Kinds of Cases Heard in Small Claims Court
Sometimes businesses might take a client to small claims court if they fail to repay a loan or pay for a service that was rendered. A client might take a business to small claims court because they breached a contract. Other reasons include failing to return a security deposit, libel or slander, professional malpractice, or personal injury.
Often, a person pursues a claim in small claims court because of the small amount of damages involved. Most disputes get resolved quickly and at a modest cost. Small claims court holds less formality than traditional court and the rules are simpler. The biggest difference is the small claims court limit among the states. Even this detail differs according to a variety of factors. For example, while the upper limit is $5,000 for businesses and corporations, natural individuals can claim damages up to $10,000.
Claims Not Allowed in Small Claims Court
Although a broad range of claims can occur in small claims court, some types aren’t allowed. Those involving divorce, guardianship, or bankruptcy are some examples not allowed in any state. In some states, you can’t file a lawsuit based on slander or libel. Cases involving the federal government or a federal agency aren’t allowed in small claims court. Even those involving a federal government agency must be filed in a federal district court or another federal court.
Should I Take My Case to Small Claims Court?
The cases that go before small claims court are civil. They involve monetary claims, not criminal offenses. Sometimes people use the small claims process to pursue a claim at a value that is less than the debt. If you aren’t sure about your odds of winning, you might not want to get involved in a lengthy, expensive lawsuit.
On the other hand, if you feel confident the law is on your side, it might be worth the time and financial investment. The best way to decide is to talk with an attorney about your case. An attorney will advise you on the types of damages you can claim. They’ll also let you know if your case is valid. It’s hard to make a call when you don’t know the laws or your rights.
Of course, the small claims court limit in your state will help with your decision. Imagine a scenario where your neighbor’s dog bit you. You required stitches and medical care that cost just over $2,000. Your neighbor’s home insurance policy doesn’t cover dog bites and they refuse to pay your damages out-of-pocket. It will cost you less than $100 to file a claim in small claims court. You have the medical records to show that the dog bit you. Records of any previous bites will help reinforce your claim. Your odds of getting reimbursed for the full amount of your claim are good. You will also receive the money it cost you to file if you win your case.
Now, imagine the same dog bite leading to a secondary infection. The infection spreads to the surrounding muscles and the bone. You require surgery and extensive medical treatment. The dog bite has a serious effect on you, making you afraid of other dogs. The pain prevents you from going to work and earning an income.
The latter scenario not only incurs much higher damages, but it also results in physical, psychological, and financial damages. The small claims court limit might not cover all of your medical costs. A dog bite attorney will probably advise you to pursue a personal injury lawsuit against your neighbor.
Whether you file your case in small claims court or in civil court, there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid. Even if a court rules in your favor, some defendants don’t have the money needed to pay. For example, the dog owner listed in the examples above might not have the money to pay $2000 for your medical costs. There’s no point in filing a lawsuit if you can’t collect.
The Small Claims Court Limit by State
|State||Small Claims Court Limit||Exceptions|
|California||$10,000||Plaintiffs can only file claims for over $2,500 twice a year. Businesses limited to $5,000 claims.|
|Connecticut||$5,000||Landlord-tenant security deposit claims|
|District of Columbia||$10,000|
|Georgia||$15,000||No small claims court limit for eviction cases|
|Hawaii||$5,000||No limit on landlord-tenant residential security deposit cases. Cases involving the return of leased or rented personal property can’t be worth more than $5,000|
|Indiana||$6,000||$8,000 in Marion County|
|Louisiana||$5,000||No limit on eviction cases|
|Massachusetts||$7,000||No limit on property damage caused by a motor vehicle|
|Minnesota||$15,000||$4,000 on claims involving consumer credit transactions. $15,000 on claims involving money or personal property subject to criminal forfeiture|
|Nebraska||$3,600||From July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2020. The small claims court limit is adjusted every five years based on the Consumer Price Index|
|New Jersey||$3,000||$5,000 for claims related to security deposits. Some landlord-tenant suits are not allowed|
|New York||$5,000||$3,000 in town and village courts|
|Tennessee||$25,000||No limit in eviction suits or those used to recover personal property|
|Wisconsin||$10,000||No limit in eviction suits|
Before You File a Small Courts Claim
If you are the one filing the lawsuit, you are the plaintiff. The person you sue is the defendant. In California, you aren’t permitted to have an attorney to represent you. You must collect the evidence and present it on your own. However, you can take witnesses to court with you. Research the small claims court limit for your state and any exceptions that apply.
Even though you can’t have an attorney to represent you, you might benefit from legal assistance before and after filing your claim. An attorney can advise you on the proper way to complete the claim forms and whether small claims court is right for your case. You also have the right to hire an attorney to help you collect a judgment.
You must ask the defendant for the money or property before you can sue them in small claims court. You can make a written or oral demand, preferably both. Keep copies of any communications between you. It’s a good idea to send a written demand by registered mail. The receipt is proof that you sent the demand and the defendant received it.
Consider the amount of damages you want to request. Do you have proof that the amount is valid? You can only receive damages in the amount that you can prove. You can’t simply sue for the upper small claims court limit.
Acceptable forms of proof include written contracts, receipts, canceled checks, photos and drawings, professional estimates, and other documents along with witness statements.
How to File a Small Courts Claim
You can obtain the form to file your claim at the courthouse or you can download and print it online. The California form includes several helpful tips to help you prepare for court. Once completed, you must submit your form to the proper location.
Larger counties are divided according to areas of court location. A small claims advisor can advise you on the proper court. Typically, this is the county where the defendant resides. One exception to this rule applies to automobile accidents. These are often heard in the county and court location where the accident occurred. Failing to file your claim in the proper court for your case will result in the case being dismissed if all defendants aren’t present and agree to have the case heard.
You must file your claim within a statute of limitations. This is the time limit after the dispute occurred that is set by the small claims court in your state. Different types of claims have different statutes of limitations. For personal injury claims, you have two years from the date of the injury or the date you discovered the injury. Disputes over oral contracts have two years from the time the contract is broken. Written contracts have a time limit of four years.
You must name the defendant on your claim. It is important to list the name correctly. Otherwise, your judgment might be difficult to enforce even if you win. Some examples include:
- – For an Individual, write the first name, middle initial if known, followed by their last name. If they have more than one name, list them all using “aka” to separate them.
- – A Business owned by an Individual should include the owner’s name and the name of the business. For example, “John Jones, doing business as John’s Pool Installation.” If banks only honor a judgment where the name matches the name on the bank account, you should request the court to amend the name to reflect the name on the defendant’s account.
- – If the defendant is a Business owned by two or more Individuals, write the name of each co-owner in a separate slot or line, along with the business name. For example, in the first defendant space, write “John Jones, doing business as Smith and Jones Painters.” In the second defendant space, write “Phil Smith, doing business as Smith and Jones Painters.”
- – Write the name of a Corporation or Limited Liability Company exactly as you know it. You aren’t required to name the individual owners. You are, however, required to include Inc., LLC, LLP, or LP for corporations, limited liability companies, limited liability partnerships, or limited partnerships respectively.
- – If your claim is against a vehicle accident defendant, you must name the registered owner(s) of the vehicle in addition to the driver. If they are the same person, you must include both. For example, “Bob Brown, owner and driver.” If the owner and driver are two different people, write “Bob Brown, owner, and Mary Brown, driver.”
You will file your completed form with the proper small claims court. Once filed, the small claims clerk informs the defendant of the amount and basis of the claim, as well as the time and place of the hearing. The clerk will provide you with a hearing date.
A Note to Defendants
If you’ve received notice that you’re the defendant in a small claims dispute, it’s up to you to defend your side of the dispute. It’s just as important for you to learn your state’s small claims court limit and what the plaintiff is disputing.
Mediation is often a great option for both the defendant and the plaintiff. It prevents your case from ending up in the courtroom. When the plaintiff first makes contact, suggest using mediation. Even if you dispute the claim, there’s nothing to lose by trying. You might even find a resolution that you agree to. If the case goes to court, you are at the mercy of the judge.
Learn more about how the small claims court works and the strength of the plaintiff’s case. If the law is on the plaintiff’s side and you owe the money, try to pay it before the hearing date. If necessary, try to work out a payment plan. If the case goes to court and there’s a judgment against you, it might go on your credit record.
There’s a lot to consider before filing a claim in small claims court. The small claims court limit in your state is one factor that matters. If you aren’t sure if the small claims process is the right choice for you, get the legal advice you can count on. Contact Batta Fulkerson for a free consultation. Your case might be worth more than you think!