People have minor disputes every day. They range from a tenant who can't get her former landlord to refund her security deposit to a mechanic who can't get a customer to pay for car repairs he made. Many times these kinds of disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. After all, an attorney's fees may take a big chunk out of what you get back. And what if you simply can't afford a lawyer?
This is where a small claims court can help. In Alabama, small claims courts settle legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other courts in the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Alabama. The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the plaintiff. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant. Your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf") if you're under 19 years old and not married, or if you're under 18 and you're married or a widow or widower.
You file a small claims case in the appropriate district court, which generally is the court of the county where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions to that rule. Small claims cases are heard by a special "division" of the district court.
In Alabama, the most you can recover in small claims court is $3,000. If your claim is a little over $3,000, you may want to consider filing in small claims anyway and forget about recovering the full amount. It will be faster, easier and less expensive than filing suit in another court. If your claim is a lot more than $3,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- Goods or services sold but not paid for or not delivered
- Money loans
- Personal injury
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as claims for security deposit refunds and unpaid or "back" rent, but landlords can't file eviction actions in small claims court
- Property damage
- Automobile accidents
- To have the defendant return personal property that rightfully belongs to you
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, and having your name legally changed.
Statute of Limitations
This is how long you have to file a lawsuit after something happens. The time period is based upon the type of claim you have. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, you generally have two years from the date of the accident to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Alabama. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your case. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called "Statement of Claim," which generally tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what your damages are, that is, how much money you want or what specific personal property you want the defendant to turn over to you. The clerk of the district court where you file suit can give you the forms you need, along with some others that you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant).
In Alabama, you can hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court, or you can represent yourself. An attorney can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most instances, you may ask the court to include your attorney's fees in the amount of the judgment if you win the case.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Statement of Claim, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Statement of Claim, which will show the date and time of your trial. You will also receive a docket number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. Also, the clerk will explain to you how to make sure that the defendant gets a copy of (or is "served with") a copy of the Statement of Claim.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what it owes you, for example. Other times your case may be heard by a mediator. He listens to you and the defendant, asks questions, and tries to get you both to reach an agreement. If neither of these happens in your case, a trial will be held before a judge. Here, both you and the defendant, and your witnesses, will be sworn in. You'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get a turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as question any witnesses.
There are no jury trials in Alabama's small claims court.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the judge may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the case. When this happens, you'll be notified by mail when the decision has been made.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't recover any money or damages. If the judgment is in your favor, the judgment will state how much money the defendant owes you or what property he has to give you, plus your court costs (filing fees, etc.). The defendant, however, has 14 days to appeal the decision, that is, he can ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Alabama Small Claims Rules of Court can tell you more about how the small claims process works. Ask the district court clerk about where you may find a copy of these rules, or check your local library.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $3,400. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims? Will it be faster than small claims?
- I was injured when a city bus hit my car. The city's insurance company won't pay all of my medical bills or for some of the repairs to my car. Can I sue the city or the insurance company in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to show up for trial, too?