Small claims court is a local court where you can go to sue a person who has caused you damage. In a few areas of the country this court is called by other names such as "justice" court or "pro se" court. Wherever you live, one of these courts should be available to you.
The hallmark of small claims court is that it's cheap and easy to file a case, and court procedures have been simplified to the point that attorneys are not necessary and in some states not even allowed. The hearing before the judge, magistrate or commissioner (sometimes a volunteer lawyer) usually happens quickly and the decision is made on the spot or in a few days.
The amount you can sue for is limited, usually to $2,000 to $5,000. The chart below lists the limits for every state. These limits increase regularly, so double check the amount with the court clerk if you decide to use this court.
You may well want to use small claims court even if your losses are higher than the amount you can sue for, because of the attorney fees and the enormous amount of time required to use regular court. For example, if you have an $6,000 claim and a lawyer will take a third of what you win as a fee, you could use a small claims court with a limit of $3,000 and still come out ahead, once the delay and expenses are figured in.
Let's take an example of a simple neighbor dispute and follow it through the small claims court process.
In his back yard, Steve has a spreading black walnut tree of which he is very proud. Ralph, who lives next door, does nothing but gripe about the tree: too many leaves, too much shade and the tree kills his flowers. One day Steve comes home and discovers that the tree has been cut down. Sally, his neighbor across the street, tells him that she saw Ralph doing the cutting and assumed he had permission. Steve takes photos of the damage and notifies the police and his insurance company. The insurance company informs him that his policy doesn't cover damage to trees. Steve calls a local nursery and learns that they can put in a good sized but smaller tree of a different kind for $900. He learns to his disappointment that he can't have another black walnut tree because a local ordinance has declared them harmful and prohibits planting new ones. The cost of removing the old stump will be an extra $200. He obtains a written estimate from the nursery.
The next step for Steve is a trip to the law library, where he looks up his state statutes on trees. He finds that under his state law, a person who willfully cuts down another's tree is liable to the owner for triple the amount of damages. He makes copies of the statute and writes this letter to Ralph:
Last Thursday, October 2, 20__, you deliberately and without permission cut down my black walnut tree. Instead of trying to resolve any problems you had with the tree in other ways, you waited until I was not at home, deliberately trespassed on my property and destroyed the tree.
I am enclosing the state law concerning your action and an estimate of my repair and the replacement cost of a smaller tree. I will never be able to have another black walnut tree.
As you can see, my actual damage is $1100. The law says that you owe me triple this amount or $3300. I demand that you pay this amount to me immediately or I will pursue legal action.
Ralph does not reply. Steve knows from doing research that because the tree can't really be replaced, he could use regular court and base his losses instead on the diminished value of his entire property. (See Chapter 1.) This would put his damages as high as $5,000 or $6,000. But he also knows that a lawyer may charge a third of the money award as a fee and that the case could take about two years.
In Steve's state, the small claims court limit is $3,000. What he really wants is a good-sized new tree and he wants it now. He considers the lawyer's fees and the time it would take to use regular court. He decides to do it himself, use small claims court and ask for the limit--
$3,000. He proceeds to the small claims clerk, fills out the papers and pays a small filing fee. A hearing is scheduled within three weeks.
Steve sits down and writes out:
- what happened
- what the law is
- how much money he should be paid and why.
He gathers the few documents he will want to use: the police report, the pictures, the estimate, a copy of the statute and a copy of his letter to Ralph. He calls Sally and gets her to agree to go to court with him and testify. He makes a few notes on a card so he won't forget anything.
That week, Steve goes down to the small claims court for a few hours and watches some actual cases, learning what to expect and how to proceed. Now he's ready.
SMALL CLAIMS COURT POINTERS
Be organized Know the law Be brief Be polite Be comfortable.
Go down to court a few days before your hearing and watch the proceedings so you will know what happens.
Clerk: The next case is Steven Shapiro vs. Ralph Rogers. Please step forward.
Judge: Good morning. Mr. Shapiro, will you please begin?
Steve: Your Honor, on October 2, my neighbor Mr. Rogers cut down my black walnut tree in my back yard. He did this deliberately and without my permission. Here is a picture of the tree that he cut (hands the judge the picture). I asked Mr. Rogers to pay me for the damage he caused and he did not respond (hands the judge a copy of the letter, which the judge reads).
Judge: Go on, Mr. Shapiro.
Steve: Here is the estimate from a nursery for $1100 for removing the stump and replacing the tree with a smaller tree of a different kind
(hands the judge the estimate).
I am asking for $3,000 because our state statute provides for me to receive triple the amount of my damages (hands the statute to the judge).
Judge: Mr. Shapiro, how do you know Mr. Rogers was the one who cut down the tree?
Steve: Your honor, this is Sally Smith, who saw what happened.
Judge: Ms. Smith?
Sally: Your honor, I saw Mr. Rogers cut down Mr. Shapiro's black walnut tree, the one in the picture.
Judge: Thank you. Mr. Rogers, what do you have to say about this?
Ralph: Your honor, the tree was an absolute nuisance. The leaves and sticks were all over my yard and the tree poisoned my flowers. Black walnut trees are so harmful that they have been outlawed in this town
(hands a copy of the local ordinance to the judge). I complained several times to Mr. Shapiro and he did nothing about it. The tree was an illegal tree and I was within my rights.
Judge: Well, Mr. Rogers, this local ordinance prohibits planting any new black walnut trees. This tree was legal when it was planted so the fact that black walnuts can't be planted now isn't relevant. Under the laws of this state, any limbs that were hanging over your own property and bothering you were a nuisance and you had the right to cut them back to the property line. But you did not have a right to go over and cut down the tree. Did you cut it down?
Ralph: Yes I did, and I didn't think I was doing anything wrong by taking the law into my own hands. At least the thing is gone and I can enjoy one autumn without all those leaves and grow my flowers.
Judge: Thank you. You will get my decision in a few days by mail.
The decision was for Ralph to pay Steve $3,000.
Some of you are thinking that Steve should have had Ralph arrested and thrown into jail. In some states this would have indeed been an option. If you think a neighbor has committed a crime, you can notify the police. They will decide if the neighbor can be charged.
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