Do you have a customer who refuses to pay you for the repairs you made to her car? Or maybe a former landlord won't return the security deposit you paid when rented an apartment? These are just a couple of examples of the types of claims or disputes that are resolved by the Hawaii small claims courts.
And now that you're ready to file a small claims lawsuit, you need to know the mechanics of what to do and how to do it. In general, you have to have to know exactly who you're suing, have the right paperwork, and file the suit in the right court.
Where to File
You file a small claims case in the appropriate district court. In Hawaii, there are five "judicial circuits," with each covering at least one island. Each circuit has a district court, which in turn is divided into several "divisions," which cover one or more areas. Generally, you need to file your case in the district court division where:
- The defendant lives
- Your claim arose, such as where the car accident happened, if the defendant doesn't live in the judicial circuit. For example, if your car accident happened on Maui (Second Circuit), but the defendant lives on Oahu (First Circuit), then you may file in the district court division for Maui (where the claim arose)
- Your claim arose, if there are multiple defendants who live in different divisions. If your claim arose outside of the judicial circuit, then you can file in any district court division where any one of the defendants can be found
- The defendant lives if your claim involves a dispute over a security deposit; or in the division where the residential property is located if the defendant doesn't live in Hawaii
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right district court division, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper court. Or, he can ask that your case be dismissed, or "thrown out." This can slow things down for you. So, if you're unsure about where to file your suit, contact the clerk's office for your area for some help.
Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Hawaii small claims courts, there's a special form called the "Statement of Small Claim and Notice of Trial." There are instructions to help you fill out the form. If you need additional help, the clerk can give you some assistance, but don't expect legal advice about your suit.
When filling out the form, you need to give information about case in a clear and simple way. Print neatly and just give the facts about your claim. Specifically, you'll need to give:
- Your name, address and a telephone number where you can be contacted during the day
- The name and address of the defendant
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money
It's very important that you have the proper name and address of the party you're suing. If it's a business like a corporation or partnership, the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, Business Registration Division can help you find its proper, legal name.
Get the right form! There's a separate Statement of Small Claim and Notice for cases that involve disputes over residential security deposits and all other cases. If you know which district court division you need to file in, you can get the forms online. If you're uncertain about which court need to file in, check with clerk of the district court in your area.
At the time you file your forms, you'll need to pay a filing fee. In Hawaii, the fee is $35, but fees can change at any time, so be sure to ask the court clerk about the fee. Also, if you can't afford the filing fee, you can complete an "Application for Relief from Costs," and depending on your financial condition, the court may not make you pay the fee.
Generally, if you win your case, the small claims court will order the defendant to pay your filing fee or "court costs." This will be in addition to any other money or "damages" the court awards you on your claim.
Service of Process
"Service of process" is when one party gives the other party notice that he's being sued. Generally, this is done by making sure that the defendant gets a copy of the Statement of Claim and Notice that you filled out.
It's your responsibility to make sure a copy of your Statement of Claim and Notice is delivered to (or "served on") the defendant. In Hawaii, the defendant may be served by:
- Sending the Statement of Claim and Notice to the defendant by registered or certified mail, restricted delivery, with return receipt requested before the trial date. At trial, you have to show the judge the registered or certified mail receipt, which shows the date of delivery and the defendant's signature
- Paying civil process server to serve the papers on the defendant. Or, any person who's not a party to the lawsuit and who's over 18 years old can serve the papers
- Serving the papers on the defendant by yourself, but you have to get the defendant's signature acknowledging that he was served. And you have to take a witness with you. The witness can't be related to you or your employee, and she either has to file a document verifying that she witnessed the papers being served, or she has to testify at trial about it
Once you've filed suit, the defendant can do any number of things, such as :
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree that he owes you money and pays you. If you agree to a settlement before trial, you have to file a Motion to Dismiss your case. You can get the form from the court clerk
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant admits or denies your claim either before trial or the trial date, and it can be in writing or oral
- Default. If the defendant doesn't show up for trial (or "defaults"), you automatically win, so long as he was properly served with the Statement of Claim and Notice and you can show the judge that your claim was valid
- Counterclaim, or file a claim against you. The defendant has to pay a fee for filing it and you have to be given a copy of it so that you can prepare your defense to the counterclaim. If you need more time, you can ask for a continuance. The court clerk can get you the necessary form, or you can get it online
- Ask for a continuance, which means postponing the trial to another day. The request has to be writing and there must be a good reason for it, such as illness
Questions for Your Attorney
- I filed a small claims suit against a dog owner, who lives on the next street over from me, because her dog bit me. She says that she never received "notice," but I know the complaint was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out the Statement of Claim and Notice and represent me in small claims court?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong district and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Statement of Claim and Notice and pay another filing fee?