Learn the nine key steps in the small claims court process. See if filing a personal injury lawsuit in small claims court will work for you.
When someone else’s negligence caused you to get hurt, you have a right to expect the at-fault party to pay for your losses. Usually, that means dealing with an insurance company. When negotiations fail, or the at-fault person wasn’t insured, you still have options.
For minor injury claims, small claims court might be your best option, especially if you intend to handle the case on your own.
Learn when you can file a lawsuit in small claims court, how much money you can demand, and what happens in a small claims lawsuit.
9 Steps of the Small Claims Lawsuit Process:
- Decide if Small Claims Court is Right for You
- Determine the Correct Party to Sue
- Confirm the Correct Venue
- Properly File Your Small Claims Lawsuit
- Organize Your Trial Evidence
- Prepare Your Case for Trial
- Practice Making Your Arguments
- Present Your Case in Court
- Collect the Judgment or Appeal the Verdict
Serious personal injury cases usually get the highest settlement when handled by an attorney. The lawsuit process in higher courts is complicated, and should only be pursued by an experienced injury lawyer.
However, when you’ve recovered from relatively minor injuries, you might be able to resolve your claim on your own.
Filing a lawsuit and taking your case to court, even small claims court, should not be your first step towards recovering injury compensation. In court, the outcome is out of your control. Exhaust all other possibilities for compensation, such as locating all available insurance coverage and persistently negotiating with the insurance company.
On the other hand, if the statute of limitations is about to run out on your claim, you must file a lawsuit before the deadline or forfeit your right to seek compensation.
It’s important to know what your claim is worth to help decide if litigating in small claims court is the best option for you.
Small claims court might be right for you when:
- Your “hard costs” for medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses, and lost wages are within the small claims court limits for your state
- Insurance settlement negotiations have stalled
- The at-fault party doesn’t have insurance
- You’re comfortable arguing your case in front of a judge
Many states have officially-named “Small Claims Courts.” Other states hear these cases in Municipal Courts, City Courts, or Justice of the Peace Courts. The name depends on your state and the types of cases that are heard.
Before filing a lawsuit, you must know who you are suing. You won’t sue the claims adjuster or insurance company. Rather, you must sue the actual person or company responsible for your injuries.
When you file a civil lawsuit, you become the Plaintiff in the case. The party you are suing is the Defendant. To file, you will need to provide the name and address of the defendant. For an individual, you can use the person’s full name and home address.
If you were hurt on someone’s property, it could be a little tricky to determine liability if the property is leased by a tenant or business. So take your time and make sure you get the correct party.
The insurance company can hire an attorney to defend a small claims lawsuit on behalf of their insured, but the company is not officially “party” to the lawsuit. If the defendant was uninsured at the time you were injured, no insurance company will be involved.
The venue is a legal term for the court jurisdiction where you must file your lawsuit. Many states have designated “small claim” courts, while other states hear smaller cases in Municipal Courts, Justice of the Peace Courts, or subdivisions of their District Courts.
In most cases, you must file a small claims lawsuit in the county where the defendant lives. If the defendant is from out of state, you may have to file in the county where your injury occurred.
Locate the proper venue by searching online or calling your local county clerk’s office. The clerk will assist you or direct you to the correct court.
Once you’ve confirmed the correct court, you can probably get the filing forms online. You can print paper forms to be filled out and filed in person, or depending on the court, you might be able to file your small claims case online. Many courts have online self-help pages to aid the person suing.
You must file your lawsuit in the county where the injury occurred, or in the county where you or the defendant resides.
Most small claims actions are decided by a judge, although some states allow either party to request a jury trial. The party you intend to sue in small claims court can also file a counterclaim against you.
Fill out the Complaint form, including the reason for your lawsuit. Don’t go into detail. It’s enough to say: “Seeking compensation for injuries from a car accident that happened on (date of injury).”
Don’t list what the defendant did wrong, or they will know exactly what you plan to argue. The defendant would then have time to prepare a defense to counter each of your arguments. You will get into specifics at trial.
Once you pay the filing fee and submit the complaint, you’ll have to wait a few weeks for the court to notify the defendant. They might be served notice of the lawsuit by certified mail. In some states, notice is served at the defendant’s work or home by a sheriff or constable. You may have to pay a small process server fee to the sheriff’s office.
The lawsuit notice will include the trial date. You’ll receive a similar notice of the court date from the small claims clerk.
The clerk will add your case to the civil court docket, establishing the court date, time, and the judge assigned to your case. If a pretrial court hearing is necessary, or a postponement of the trial, both parties will be notified by the clerk.
You must have command over your evidence. If it’s a police report, know what any diagrams and codes mean. If it’s a medical report, know how to pronounce the doctors’ names, and understand your diagnosis and prognosis.
Be ready to use the correct medical terms as they apply to your injury. Study the medical reports and doctor’s notes you will use as evidence of your injuries. The more familiar you are with your injuries and treatment, the more effective your presentation will be.
Prepare your photographs and practice how you will link them to the circumstances of your case and the accident that caused your injury. Avoid using more than one or two photographs of the same subject.
Be sure your employer’s wage verification letter details the time you lost from work, and the wages and overtime you lost.
Check the dates on any receipts for out-of-pocket expenses like medications, bandages, or crutches. Don’t write on the original receipts, but you can make copies and put notes in the margins of the copy for clarification.
Preparing a Trial Folder
The way you organize your evidence is crucial. You’ll have one chance to present your case – make it count. One of the most effective ways to prepare for trial is by creating a trial folder.
A trial folder classifies each piece of evidence you’ll be offering at trial, making it quick and easy to access. The less distracted you are by searching for evidence, the more you can focus on your presentation.
You can use an accordion folder with enough pockets to accommodate each category of your evidence, or you can use a large three-ring binder with pocket-style dividers.
Categories of documents might include:
- Police or Incident reports
- Witness Statements
- Medical Records
- Wage Statements
- Bills and Receipts
A proper folder can save you at trial. If the insurance company sends an attorney to defend their insured, you can bet the attorney will have a trial folder. You want to be on a level playing field. It’s also an excellent way to impress the court. It shows your attention to detail, professionalism, and determination.
Your trial folder should contain the original document and several copies. Each section should have an index listing the documents in that section.
For example, the medical records section might include:
- Emergency room records
- X-ray reports
- Family doctor’s notes
- Physical therapy records
You also need a list of evidence in the order you plan to introduce it at trial, and where it’s located in your folder. Separating your documents by category and creating these two corresponding lists is an easy way of getting to your evidence quickly and in the right order.
Make at least three copies of each document you plan to use at trial. Keep the originals separate but bring them with you.
You need three copies of each document, one for each of the following:
- Your use at trial (in your trial folder)
- The Judge
- The Defendant
A professional way to provide copies for the judge and defendant is to put the documents in the order you plan to introduce them at trial, with a cover page listing the documents in that order. The cover sheet should have your name, the trial date, and your case number at the top.
A small claims trial moves at a brisk pace, and your case will likely be one of many the court hears that day. If you’re thoroughly prepared and have command over your evidence, you’ll look and feel confident and competent.
Before going into court, organize and prepare your documents and evidence. This will help you be more confident and persuasive in front of the judge.
There’s no substitute for careful preparation. Preparing for trial means knowing what you’re going to say in court and presenting your case with confidence.
You don’t have to worry about using fancy legal terms or quoting statutes in small claims court. Even if the defendant brings a lawyer, the judge will listen carefully to everything you say.
In small claims court, winning means making the best argument in the shortest amount of time. Think of your case as a story you want to tell. It begins the moment you were injured and ends with your last medical treatment.
Plan What You’re Going to Say in Court
Start with a written checklist of the points you want to make, and what you’re going to say. Go through your story in order.
1. Injury Event: Begin with the circumstances leading up to the injury. Explain what you were doing just before you were injured, and then describe how the injury occurred.
You might say something like, “I was on my way to work at about eight in the morning. While waiting at a red light, I suddenly felt a severe impact from behind. The defendant failed to stop and slammed into the back of my car. My neck and back were abruptly jolted, and I immediately felt severe pain.”
2. Defendant at the Scene: Describe what the defendant did or said when you were injured. It could be something helpful to your case, such as, “When we got out of our cars the defendant said, ‘I’m sorry, I was adjusting the stereo and didn’t see you in time to stop.'”
3. Witnesses: If you will be bringing witnesses to court, refer to them by their correct names, not nicknames or other familiar descriptions. Make sure your witnesses are prepared, and their testimony is consistent.
You can also bring written statements, signed and dated by the witness, but in-person witnesses are best. The clerk can help if you need a subpoena to ensure a witness can appear on the trial date.
4. Pain and Suffering: Even if the small claims court in your state won’t allow compensation for pain and suffering, you can still talk about your experience in your testimony. Relate how the injury and treatment caused you pain and limited your normal daily functioning. Explain how you had no choice but to seek treatment as a result of the accident.
You can use the “But for” argument to help prove the defendant’s liability. You can say something like, “But for the defendant’s speeding, I would not have been injured.” Or, “But for the pool of water the store left on the floor, I would not have slipped and broken my arm.”
5. Summary of Expenses: Small claims court cases are money disputes. The easier you make it for the judge to see the total amount of your monetary losses, the better for your case. Never hand over a stack of bills and receipts without a summary page.
Create a neat summary page with an itemized list of each expense, with a total at the bottom. The total should be the amount you asked for in the complaint. During your presentation, speak about the costs you incurred (without going into too much detail) that should be compensated by the defendant.
6. Court Costs: Create a separate list itemizing your court costs. If there is room, you can have this list on your expense summary page. In some jurisdictions, you can ask that the defendant pay your court fees if you win.
7. Case Summary: After both sides have presented their arguments, the judge could ask for closing statements. Here’s your chance to underscore the facts of your case and why you should be awarded the full amount of compensation you requested.
Practice, practice, practice. Write out everything you plan to say and list the evidence you will show to the court. Make each of your points clear and brief. You’ll also need to prepare a “closing statement” that summarizes all the points you already made.
Practice making your presentation and closing statement out loud.
Although small claims trials are more relaxed than higher courts, the burden remains on you to prove the other party’s responsibility for your losses.
You’ll only have a short time to lay out the facts of your case and convince the court to rule in your favor. If you aren’t used to public speaking, don’t underestimate how nerve-racking it can be to present your case in front of a judge and a room full of spectators.
Being well prepared can mean the difference between a smooth, effective presentation and an awkward, unconvincing one.
In court, it’s important to dress appropriately. Judges notice those who show respect to the court. Your appearance also makes a statement about your professionalism, determination, and belief in your case.
Practice at least once wearing the clothes you intend to wear to court. You can’t have too much practice. You’ll be glad you did.
Small claim courts are designed to help people settle disputes without hiring a lawyer. However, most courts allow attorneys to represent the parties, so don’t be surprised if you get to court and see an attorney there to represent the defendant.
If the defendant carried insurance, the insurance company has a “duty to defend” their insured, even if your injury claim was already denied. The company will therefore likely hire a lawyer to represent their insured in a small claims case.
Because you’re the plaintiff, you’ll be the first to present your side of the case and the evidence that supports your position.
Focus on the facts. Small claims court is meant to be used by non-lawyers, without strict court rules of evidence or procedure.
Although the judge will give both sides some leeway when it comes to out-of-court statements made by third parties, you’ll be a lot safer by having all your witnesses there and ready to testify. If not, you’ll have a difficult time convincing the judge of the truthfulness of their statements.
Judges don’t want witnesses sitting in the courtroom listening to other witnesses’ testimonies. It raises the possibility they will repeat what was previously said by another witness, or that they’ll avoid contradicting what another friendly witness said.
If you’ve prepared your witnesses properly, right before the trial begins, politely ask the judge to require all witnesses to wait in the hall until called, and not to discuss their testimony with each other. The judge will understand what you mean and will likely comply.
That will give you an advantage if the defendant hasn’t prepared their witnesses.
Don’t interrupt the defendant or witnesses while they’re testifying. Likewise, ignore any interruptions from the defendant while you are testifying, or later in the trial when you’re summarizing your case. The judge will warn the person and probably ignore anything they said when interrupting.
After all testimony, the judge may ask you both to summarize your cases. Here’s where you can give the “closing statement” you prepared. Summarize each point you made and explain how the testimony and evidence supports each of those points.
After hearing all the testimony, the judge or jury will render their decision. If you lose, you may be able to appeal your injury case to a higher court.
Get prompt legal advice from a local personal injury attorney if you’re considering an appeal. Each jurisdiction has time limits for filing an appeal. Superior courts have strict procedural rules, and you won’t have the slack you get in small claims court.
If the defendant failed to appear for trial without proper notification of extenuating circumstances, you will likely win a default judgment.
If you win a small claims lawsuit against an insured defendant, their insurance company will probably send you a check within a few weeks. The defendant also has the right to appeal the court action, but most small claims verdicts are not worth the cost of the appeals process.
If the defendant was not insured, they might voluntarily make arrangements to pay the judgment. Otherwise, you will need to take steps, like wage garnishment, to enforce the judgment. Speak to the court clerk about resources to help you collect the money you’re owed from a small claims lawsuit.
The basics of small claims lawsuits are similar across the United States, but the specific procedures vary, so check your county court’s requirements carefully. The maximum amount of money you’re allowed to sue for varies widely by location.
|Small Claims Court Limits by State|
|District of Columbia||$10,000|
|Massachusetts||$7,000 (No limit for auto accident property damage)|
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