Can You Sue for Injury in Small Claims Court? Is Pain and Suffering Included?

Most states’ small claims courts allow personal injury lawsuits, but don’t award pain and suffering compensation. You can get restitution for monetary damages.

Every state has some version of Small Claims Court. Your state may call it Municipal Court, City Court, or Justice of the Peace Court.

Small claims courts are a simple and affordable option for pursuing injury compensation on your own without an attorney. The personal injury lawsuit process in higher courts is more complicated and costly.

The tradeoff is that small claims courts limit the amount you can recover, and some won’t allow pain and suffering or emotional distress claims.

If you’ve recovered from injuries in a car accident, slip and fall, or other incident, think about the types and amounts of your losses, the small claims court rules in your location, and what it takes to win in court.

What You Can Sue For In Small Claims Court

A few states don’t allow “tort” claims, meaning personal injury claims, to be handled in small claims court. Many only allow you to seek economic damages, meaning damages measured by a bill or receipt.

Most states’ small claims courts allow injury claims, but prohibit:

  • Pain and suffering compensation
  • Punitive damages (meant to “punish” the wrongdoer)
  • Other non-monetary losses

All small claims courts allow you to seek reimbursement for your actual costs, called economic damages, up to the state’s monetary limit.

Economic damages include measurable costs, such as:

  • Medical bills
  • Out-of-pocket medical expenses
  • Lost wages
  • Replacement or repair costs for damaged property

Small Claims Court Monetary Limits

Small claims courts have limits on the amount of money you can demand and their own set of rules and procedures to follow.

If the dollar amount of your claim is higher than your state’s limit, you can still file a small claims lawsuit, but you won’t be able to collect more than the court’s maximum amount. If you win your case, you won’t be allowed to take “another bite of the apple” by filing a second small claims lawsuit to recover the rest.

If your claim value is too high for small claims court, consider talking to an experienced personal injury attorney about suing in a higher court. Keep in mind that if you haven’t settled your claim or filed a lawsuit before the statute of limitations runs out, you will lose the right to seek compensation for your injuries.

What You Won’t Get in Small Claims Court

Small claims court is all about settling money disputes, so you won’t get the judge to order the homeowner to tear down their rickety front porch, even if you tripped on a loose board and broke your wrist.

Don’t expect to walk out of court with a check. If you win your small claims case, you will be awarded a “judgment” against the party you sued.

If the at-fault party was insured, their insurance company will probably pay you in a few weeks. Otherwise, you will have to “enforce the judgment” by taking further action, such as:

  • Formally asking the other person to pay you
  • Agreeing to accept a payment plan
  • Garnishing the person’s wages
  • Placing a lien on the person’s property

Many state courts have departments set up to help with enforcing judgments.

Calculate Your Injury Claim Value

If you haven’t already, now is the time to calculate the amount of compensation you would need to resolve your injury claim.

Gather documents proving your expenses:

Keep in mind that some medical visits generate two bills. For example, if you had X-rays there will be a bill from the medical facility and a separate bill from the radiologist who interpreted the results.

Calculate your medical expenses based on the full cost of your medical treatment, not just your co-pay or deductibles.

Add up your medical costs, out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and personal property damage to arrive at your total economic damages, also called hard costs or special damages.

If you happen to be in a state that allows recovery of non-economic damages, you can add one or two times the amount of your hard costs to account for your pain and suffering.

Example: Slip and Fall Claim Value

Miranda lived in an older apartment building in New York. She was returning home from work one winter evening and began to climb the steps leading into her apartment building. Slipping on packed snow, she fell down the steps, breaking her wrist as she tried to catch herself.

The apartment owner denied responsibility and refused to provide insurance information. Miranda just wanted to be compensated for her monetary losses, so rather than hire a personal injury lawyer, she sued the building owner in small claims court. Her expenses included:

Medical bills: $3,500

Lost wages: $2,400

Broken smartwatch: $750

Miranda’s Total Hard Costs: $6,650

The small claims court monetary limit in New York state is $10,000. Miranda successfully filed a small claims lawsuit against the apartment owner and got a judgment for her total expenses of $6,650.

In addition to the amount of damages, you can ask for the money you spent to file your court case, so keep receipts for the filing fee and other court costs.

Presenting a Strong Case for Injury Compensation

In any personal injury lawsuit, you (the plaintiff) bear the burden of proof to show the defendant was directly to blame for your injuries and should pay for your damages. In most injury cases, that means proving the defendant was negligent.

There are four elements of negligence necessary to prove someone is liable for your injuries. The elements are:

  1. Duty of Care
  2. Breached Duty of Care
  3. Breach Resulted in Harm
  4. Verifiable Injuries

Using the “elements of negligence” gives you a reliable framework to follow for your court presentation.

Sample Outline for Presenting a Small Claims Case

Introduction: Your Honor, on May 14 of this year, I was walking home from the store on a public sidewalk when I was viciously attacked by Mr. Smith’s Doberman-type dog. I suffered several bites to my left leg that required hospital treatment.

Duty of Care: Mr. Smith had an obligation to keep his dog safely contained behind a fence or on a leash to protect other people from getting hurt. I have a copy of the town ordinance that makes it illegal to let a dog run loose.

Breached Duty of Care: On May 14, Mr. Smith violated the town ordinance by letting his dog run loose, with no fence and no leash. No reasonable person would let a Doberman-type dog loose in a residential neighborhood. Mr. Smith should have known someone could get hurt.

My witness, Ms. Jones, lives across the street from Mr. Smith. She was sitting on her porch the afternoon I was attacked. She witnessed Mr. Smith letting the dog out the front door that day and saw the dog attack me less than an hour later.

I checked with the town’s Animal Control office and found out that in the month leading up to the attack, at least two other neighbors called in to complain about Mr. Smith’s dog running loose. I have a letter from Animal Control confirming the previous complaints.

Breach Resulted in Harm: Because Mr. Smith negligently let his dog run loose, I was attacked and bitten several times. I had done nothing wrong. If not for Mr. Smith negligently letting his dog loose, I would not have been injured by a dog attack.

Verifiable Injuries: Mr. Franklin was driving by when I was attacked. He stopped his car to help me. At the same time, Mr. Smith ran out and pulled his dog off me and dragged it back into his house. Mr. Franklin called 911 and wrapped a towel around my leg until paramedics got there. I was bleeding badly and shaking from the shock.

I brought the pants I was wearing that day to show how blood-soaked my clothes were.

Mr. Franklin couldn’t take off work to be here, so I have his written statement.

Paramedics took me to the hospital where I required IV antibiotics, X-Rays, and a total of 40 stitches to three bite wounds on my leg. You can see in the photographs how my leg looked just before I left the hospital.

Even though I work in an office, I was off work for a week until the swelling went down and I got over the stomach upset caused by the strong antibiotics I had to keep taking.

Please take a look at the doctor’s note prohibiting me from work, and my medical records describing the pain and swelling from the bites, as well as the side effects of the antibiotics. I also have a statement from my employer listing my lost wages.

Conclusion: Your honor, I was walking on a public sidewalk, minding my own business when I was violently attacked by Mr. Smith’s dog. Mr. Smith intentionally let his dog run loose and should have known someone would eventually get hurt.

Well, I did get hurt because of Mr. Smith’s negligence. I’m respectfully asking for $6,500 to cover my lost wages and medical expenses. I also ask for Mr. Smith to pay my court costs of $75.

Thank you, Your Honor.

You can prepare a similar outline for your case, covering all the important elements needed to prove negligence and fault.

Try not to read your presentation word-for-word. It’s best to have an outline of your main points and the evidence you’ll be presenting to keep you on track while you’re speaking.

Even if you can’t ask for pain and suffering, it’s okay to discuss the extent of your injuries, the emotional pain you endured, and how the infliction of your injuries affected your enjoyment of life. Be sincere, but not theatrical.

Practice your presentation out loud, over and over. The more often you rehearse your presentation, the better.

Practice your presentation in front of family and friends. It’s not easy to give a speech in front of strangers, especially when you’ve got a lot riding on the outcome.

Suing for Injury in Small Claims Court Questions

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>