People have disputes over money or property all the time. They range from a buyer not getting the goods or services he paid for, to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit or refusing to let a tenant back into the premises to get some belongings he left behind. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. The fees you may have to pay an attorney may close to or more than the amount you're owed or the value of the property you want returned to you.
This is where a "small claims court" can help. In Delaware, the justice of the peace courts settle legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. They're similar to the small claims courts that many states have: They're designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other Delaware courts.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the justice of the peace courts in Delaware. 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. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf"). Likewise, if the defendant is under 18, you have to name his parent or guardian as a defendant, too.
You file a small claims case in the appropriate justice of the peace court, which usually is one of the courts in the county or the area closest to where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions.
In Delaware, the most you can recover in a justice of the peace court is $15,000. If your claim is a little over $15,000, you may want to consider filing it 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 $15,000, 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 delivered
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as actions to recover security deposits and unpaid or "back" rent, and evicting tenants, called "summary possession"
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Actions to get specific personal property, like a vehicle or equipment
In Delaware, actions to recover money you're owed are called debt actions. These include suits over things like non-payment on loans and recover of security deposits or back rent. Suits to recover money to pay for damages to your personal property are called trespass actions. They include suits for car repairs and damage to your lawn, for example.
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, changing your legal name, and money for personal injuries. For example, if you were in a car accident, you may file suit against the other driver in a justice of the peace court to get money to repair your car, but not to recover money for injuries you suffered in the accident.
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 in a car accident, in Delaware you generally have two years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit to get money for "property damages" to your car. 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 a "Complaint." This form tells the court and the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what you're damages are, that is, how much money or what property you want. The clerk of the justice of the peace court has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). Or, you can get this and other forms online.
In Delaware, you may hire an attorney to represent you in a justice of the peace court, or you may 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 court clerk may help you complete the Complaint, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, such as telling you if the statute of limitations has expired on your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Complaint, which will show 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 arrange to have a copy of the Complaint sent to or "served on" the defendant.
In trespass and debt actions, the clerk will schedule a trial date after the defendant has been served. In evictions and replevin actions, the clerk will schedule a trial date as soon as you file your Complaint.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what it owes you, for example. If this doesn't happen in your case, a trial will be held before a judge or a "magistrate." At trial, 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 the Delaware justice of the peace courts. The exception is when a landlord files an eviction action, in which case either party may request or "demand" a jury trial.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge or magistrate. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the magistrate 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, usually within 30 days after the trial.
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, it will state exactly how much the defendant must pay you or what property he has to turn over to you. If either you or the defendant are unhappy with the decision, you have 15 days (5 days if it's an eviction action), to appeal the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by another court or other judges.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Rules of Procedure of Actions in the Justice of the Peace Court can tell you more about how the small claims process works in Delaware.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $15,500. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than a justice of the peace court?
- I was in an accident with a state-owned maintenance truck. Can I sue the State of Delaware in a justice of the peace court to get money for my car repairs?
- If I hire you to represent me in a justice of the peace court, do I have to be there at trial, too?