Whether the incident involves a fender bender that the responsible party balks at paying to repair or a business that refuses to replace warrantied merchandise, many states have mechanisms through which individuals can resolve controversies quicker and less expensively than in a more formal court.
California provides residents such an opportunity through its small claims system in which judges issue bindings ruling in disputes.
What Are the Restrictions on Cases?
Companies and corporations are limited to seeking $5,000 damages in a single small-claims action, though individuals can file cases requesting up to $7,500. However, no one—business or person—can file more than two claims for more than $2,500 each in a calendar year. In other words, if an individual files a $4,000 claim in September and another for $4,000 in November, he will have to wait until the following January to initiate another action in excess of $2,500, though he could continue to file actions seeking $2,500 or less.
Where Should the Claim Commence?
Generally, individuals or businesses initiate claims in the county where the defendant resides or conducts business, though there are exceptions. Small-claims advisors are available in every county to assist plaintiffs and defendants with their cases.
In most instances, plaintiffs are permitted two years following the incident to file an action, with three years permitted in contract disputes and even longer periods for other types of actions. The filing fee is on a sliding scale that goes from $30 to $75, depending upon the amount being sought and how many claims the plaintiff has filed in that particular year.
What Is the Process for Filing a Complaint?
The complaint begins on a form that includes information such as the person or business's full legal name and address, as well as a succinct summary of the allegations.
The court clerk will set a hearing date when the plaintiff files the claim, and then it is up to the plaintiff to make sure that all defendants are served with an official copy of the claim and any accompanying paperwork. Defendants are permitted to respond to the allegations, and they are allowed to initiate a defendant's claim asserting that the plaintiff is responsible for any problems.
Preparing for and Attending the Hearing
Attorneys cannot appear in small-claims court, though plaintiffs or defendants can take advantage of legal advise prior to the hearing. In addition to practicing their presentations, parties in the action should compile needed evidence, such as:
- Written documents such as contracts, correspondence, warranties or receipts
- Photographic images of property, locations or damages
- Official investigation reports
- Repair estimates if property damage is involved
During the hearing, both sides will have the opportunity to present evidence and question witnesses. The judge issues a ruling; the defendant has 30 days in which to appeal the decision, though the plaintiff cannot file any further action.
Collecting the Debt
Plaintiffs can seek orders establishing a date by which the defendants must begin paying any awarded amounts if the defendant does not begin voluntarily. Seeking garnishment of pay or financial accounts is another possibility.
Though California does not permit attorneys to appear in small claims court, many individuals will consult lawyers for assistance in formulating their cases. Please consult a local attorney if you have specific questions about your case.