Should You File a Personal Injury Lawsuit in Small Claims Court?

We help you weigh the pros and cons of filing a small claims lawsuit to pursue fair personal injury compensation.

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 great way to officially resolve financial disputes without the expense and procedures of litigation in a higher court. The tradeoff is, these courts limit the amount you can recover.

Is small claims court the best way to handle your injury case? Here’s where we unpack the pros and cons of filing a small claims lawsuit for personal injury damages.

When to Consider Filing a Small Claims Lawsuit

When handling an injury claim yourself, you’ll likely be negotiating a settlement with the at-fault party’s insurance company. Sometimes, a claims adjuster will refuse to come off a low-ball settlement offer.

If you can’t reach an agreement with the adjuster, just mentioning a lawsuit may be all you need to prompt a fair offer.

An adjuster won’t budge from their offer if they think a judge or jury would not award the amount you’re demanding. Or they might be bluffing. Adjusters aren’t intimidated by baseless threats from non-lawyers.

However, when the adjuster realizes you’ve thought the issue through and are serious about filing a lawsuit against their insured, you might reach a fair settlement.

When Negotiations Stall

If you’re at a stalemate with the insurance company, and settlement is no longer an option, you have to decide whether to file a lawsuit or walk away with nothing.

Reasons your injury claim might not settle:

  • The claims adjuster flatly denied your claim
  • The adjuster refused to offer enough money to cover your damages
  • The adjuster is ignoring your calls and letters
  • Arbitration or mediation is not available
  • The statute of limitations is looming

Sometimes your injuries are caused by an uninsured driver, property owner, or tenant. If you can’t get them to pay for your injuries voluntarily, a lawsuit might be the only way to get compensation.

Serious injuries or complicated injury claims should be managed by an experienced attorney for the best possible outcome. There’s too much at stake in these cases for you to go it alone.

When your injuries are relatively minor, and you don’t have a ton of medical bills, you can probably handle a small claims injury lawsuit on your own.

Consider talking to a personal injury attorney before deciding to file a lawsuit. Most injury attorneys offer a free initial consultation.

Consider 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 your injury claim value 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.

Judge or Jury?

Most small claims court actions are “bench trials,” meaning only a judge decides your case after both sides “approach the bench” to argue their side of the story.

Some states allow one side or the other to request a jury. Jury trials are more complicated and time-consuming, and won’t necessarily be better for your case.

Judges only consider the facts of the case and tend to ignore emotional testimony or other “soft” arguments. Juries can be swayed by a persuasive speaker, leading to verdicts based on what they believe is fair, sometimes despite the facts of the case.

Pros and Cons of Small Claims Court Lawsuits

There are advantages and disadvantages to any legal action. The reality is, the facts of your case may not be enough to guarantee a successful outcome.

When deciding whether you should file a small claims lawsuit for your injury claim, take the time to look at the big picture, including:

  • Will your lawsuit be worth the time and money you put into it?
  • Should you reconsider the adjuster’s settlement offer? A settlement is a sure thing. You might not win more in court.
  • Can you cope with the stress of a public trial?
  • Have you objectively considered the strength of your case? You have to be able to prove the other party is liable, meaning responsible for your injuries.
  • Are you prepared to lose, and get zero compensation for your injuries?

Regardless of how you answer the above questions, there are advantages to filing a lawsuit in small claims court instead of pursuing litigation in a higher court.

Pros of small claims court:

  • Preservation: Filing a small claims action will stop the statute of limitations from running out before you can settle your injury claim.
  • Affordability: Small claims filing fees vary widely, but are usually less than $100. You can also request the other party pay your court costs if you win the case.
  • Speed: There is less wait for a trial date in small claims courts, fewer postponements, and the judge usually makes a decision the day of your trial.
  • Procedures: The rules of evidence are relaxed in small claims court, you won’t need a lot of legal terms, and the courtroom arguments are less formal.
  • Fairness: The judge will consider your story and your evidence objectively and fairly.
  • Judgment: If you win your case, a judgment will be entered against the at-fault party that could be valid for the next 20 years.

Don’t jump into filing a small claims lawsuit before taking a hard look at the disadvantages of handling your case in court on your own.

Cons of small claims court:

  • Attorneys: If the person you sue is insured, their insurance company has a “duty to defend” them and will hire a lawyer to represent them in court.
  • Damages: Most small claim courts only allow recovery of actual expenses. You can’t always get compensation for pain and suffering.
  • Relationships: If you’re planning to sue a neighbor or local store owner, you’ll not only sever your relationship with them but possibly other neighbors in your community.
  • Publicity: Small claim courts trials are open to the public and become a matter of record that can be seen by relatives, prospective employers, and local media.
  • Judgment: If a judgment is entered in your favor, you’ll have to take steps to enforce the judgement, unless the other side agrees to pay you right away.
  • Insolvency: If the person who caused your injuries is broke and has no assets, you might never recover your court costs, much less compensation for your injuries.

If you still aren’t sure you should file a small claims lawsuit for your injury claim, talk to an attorney. It costs nothing to find out what a good attorney can do for you.

Video: Should You File a Small Claims Lawsuit?

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 >>