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Top 10 Tips For Small Claims Court Cases

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Small claims court is a special type of court that exists throughout the United States to hear minor disputes. Read on for the top 10 tips for small claims court cases.

  1. Small claims courts are for certain types of suits: You can sue in small claims over the typical issues brought to higher courts -- personal injury, breach of contract, breach of warranty -- but you can't file for divorce or to settle child custody, declare bankruptcy or, in some states, make a claim of libel or slander. 
  2. You must sue in a timely manner to be eligible to bring a small claims court case: Like in other courts, there is a statute of limitations. If you wait too long after someone wrongs you, you may lose the right to sue for that wrong.
  3. There is a maximum dollar limit for recovery when a case is brought in small claims court: The exact maximum for what you can collect varies by state. The maximum limits range from $3,000 in some states to $10,000 in others. This means if you live in a state where the small claims court has a $5,000 limit, you can only bring cases in small claims court for disputes involving $5,000 or less.
  4. If you bring a case in small claims court, you cannot later bring the same case in a different court: Once a judge has decided a case, you can't simply go to another court and have the case decided again. Judicial decisions are final, unless you appeal.
  5. You must sue in a small claims court near where you and the defendant live: A court must have jurisdiction - or the right to impose its will - in order to hear a case. If you want to sue someone who lives in a different state, and that person has never been to your state and the action giving rise to the lawsuit didn't occur in your state, you may have to sue the defendant wherever he lives.
  6. You may be able to counter-sue in small claims court: This means that if someone sues you but you believe that they actually owe you money or damages, then you can file a counterclaim. This is only appropriate if both the original claim and counterclaim arise from the same event. For example, if Joe believes Kim owes him money for the apartment they lived in together, but Kim believes Joe owes her money for the apartment and same rental transaction, the two disputes are essentially the same. If Joe files suit first, Kim can counter-sue.
  7. Some states do not allow you to bring a lawyer to small claims court: In those states - including New York- you must represent yourself. In others, you are allowed to bring a lawyer but doing so is optional and most people do not.
  8. Some states will allow an appeal if you lose a small claims court case: This means you can request that the decision of the court be reconsidered by the local superior court. Usually, you can only appeal the way in which the law was applied, you cannot appeal the way a judge looked at the facts. However, some states allow you to request a new trial before another small claims court judge. 
  9. You can subpoena a witness to come to a small claims court trial: If you need a witness to prove your case and he won't come, you can file papers with the court to have him subpoenaed. This means that the court will formally request his presence and if he fails to comply, he can be held in contempt.
  10. Winning a case in small claims court does not guarantee you will recover damages. If the court awards you the judgment, you still have to collect it. The court may help by mandating that the defendant's wages be garnished (a portion of money taken from his paycheck) in certain circumstances. However, ultimately if a person does not have the money to pay a judgment and/or has no job or assets, you may not be able to recover money, even if the court says you are entitled to it.

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