Learn how and when you should file a lawsuit in small claims court to get the injury compensation you deserve.
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 with the insurance adjuster, or the at-fault person wasn’t insured, you still have options.
For relatively 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.
Is Small Claims Court Right for My Injury Claim?
High-dollar injury claims are usually settled for the most money when an attorney handles the case. However, when you’ve recovered from relatively minor injuries, you might be able to resolve your claim on your own.
It’s important to know what your claim is worth to choose the best option for your circumstances.
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 negotiations have stalled
- The at-fault party doesn’t have insurance
- You’re comfortable arguing your case in front of a judge
The small claims process starts the day the lawsuit is filed and ends when the judge decides who wins, but there are important aspects of your case to consider upfront.
What You Won’t Get in Small Claims Court
A few states don’t allow “tort” claims, meaning injury claims, to be handled in small claims court. Most states do allow recovery for injury claims, but you won’t be awarded:
- Pain and suffering compensation
- Punitive damages (meant to “punish” the wrongdoer)
- Non-monetary losses
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.
It helps to know some legal terms used in court cases:
- The Plaintiff is the party filing the lawsuit. You are the plaintiff, even if an attorney files the case for you.
- The Defendant is the party you are suing who caused you harm. Injury lawsuits are filed against the at-fault party, not their insurance company.
- The Complaint, also called the Petition, is the document filed to begin a lawsuit. You will state the reason for the lawsuit, whom you are suing, and the amount of money you’re seeking.
- Service of Process is the way the defendant is notified of the lawsuit. Each state’s court will have rules and instructions.
- A Subpoena is a court order that tells someone to come to court or to hand over certain documents.
- The Verdict is the judge or jury’s final decision about your case.
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.
If you can’t find the right small claims court, ask at your county clerk’s office.
Consider talking to a personal injury attorney before filing a small claims lawsuit. Most injury attorneys don’t charge for their initial consultation.
Small Claim Court Limits by State
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 you’re allowed to sue for varies widely by location.
|Small Claims Court Limits|
|District of Columbia||$10,000|
|Indiana||$6,000 ($8,000 in Marion County)|
|Massachusetts||$7,000 (No limit for auto accident property damage)|
|Nebraska||$3,600 (adjusted every five years)|
|New York||$5,000 ($3,000 in town and village courts)|
Injury Lawsuits in Small Claims Court
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.
Be sure you’ve exhausted other possibilities for compensation, such as:
- Locating all available insurance coverage
- Persistently negotiating with the insurance company
- Other forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution
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.
When all else fails, talk to an attorney and get ready to litigate.
There are 5 phases of a small claims lawsuit:
- Determining whom to sue
- Filing the lawsuit
- Preparing for trial
- Arguing your case in court
- Getting the verdict
1. Determining Whom to Sue
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.
You will need to provide the name and address of the party you intend to sue. 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 property owner liability when the property is leased by a tenant or business. So take your time and make sure you get the correct party.
While the insurance company can hire an attorney to defend a small claims lawsuit on behalf of their insured, the company is not officially “party” to the lawsuit. If the defendant was uninsured at the time you were injured, no insurance company would be involved.
2. Filing a Small Claims Injury Lawsuit
You must file your lawsuit in the county where the injury occurred, or in the county where you or the defendant resides.
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.
The lawsuit notice will include the trial date. You’ll receive a similar notice of the trial date from the small claims clerk.
3. Preparing Your Small Claims Injury Case for Trial
Before going into court, organize and prepare your case.
How to Prepare
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, practice, practice making your presentation and closing statement out loud.
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.
You won’t have much time to present your side of the case, so it’s important that your witnesses are prepared. Make sure they arrive at the courthouse fully prepped to give consistent testimony. Don’t tell them to lie. Just make sure they give similar versions of the facts.
Most small claims courts permit parties to subpoena witnesses and documents relevant to their case. Subpoenas should be free. Just ask the small claims clerk for one or more subpoena forms. Enter the case number, the witnesses’ names, and describe any documents or other evidence you want them to bring.
If there are witnesses who agree to testify on your behalf, they may require subpoenas to show their employers so that they can be excused from work.
You can request subpoenas be served on friendly and unfriendly witnesses, but you only want witnesses who will help prove your case in some way. Never subpoena a witness merely to aggravate the person. That will backfire badly in front of a judge.
4. Arguing Your Case in Court
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 is there to represent the defendant.
If the defendant carried insurance, the insurance company has a “duty to defend” their insured, even if they already denied your injury claim. The company would hire a lawyer to represent the defendant in your small claims case.
Because you’re the plaintiff, you’ll be the first to present your side of the case and share the evidence that supports your position.
Focus on the facts of your case. Small claims court is meant to be used by non-lawyers, without strict procedural rules.
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’re 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 in the case and explain how the testimony and evidence support each of those points.
5. Getting the Verdict
After hearing all the testimony, the judge or jury will render their decision. If you lose, you may be able to appeal your case to a higher court.
Talk to an attorney if you’re considering an appeal. Higher courts have strict procedural rules, and you won’t have the slack you get in small claims court.
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, 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 to enforce the judgement. Most courts have resources to help you collect the money you’re owed from a small claims lawsuit.
Video: 5 Steps to Filing a Small Claims Lawsuit
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