People have minor disputes every day, like a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. The fees you may have to pay an attorney could be close to the amount you're owed. Maybe you can't afford an attorney in the first place.
This is where small claims court can help. In Hawaii, the small claims court settles 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 state courts.
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. In most cases, you can represent yourself, or you can hire a lawyer to represent you in court. The exception is if the suit is over a security deposit for residential property. In such a case, neither party may be represented by an attorney.
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." Generally, you need to file your case in the district court's division in which the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions. If you're uncertain about where to file, the clerk of the district court in your area can help you.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses, and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Hawaii. You have to be 18 years old to file a lawsuit (or be sued), and if you're under 18, a parent or guardian has to file the lawsuit for you. If you're suing a business like a corporation or partnership, you need its proper legal, name. The Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, Business Registration Division can help you find this.
In Hawaii, the most you can recover in small claims court is $3,500 (or no more than $25,000 if you're the defendant and you claim that the plaintiff owes you money (called a "counterclaim"). If your claim is a little over $3,500, 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 $3,500, 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
In Hawaii, the small claims courts can decide cases that involve all sorts of disputes, including:
- A disagreement over a security deposit between landlord and tenant involving a residential property
- The return of leased or rented personal property where the property is worth $3,500 or less and where the amount claimed as rent due isn't over $3,500, such as for furniture and home electronics rentals
- The recovery of damages to or for repossession of shopping carts, shopping baskets or similar items that were taken without permission a business establishment
- Claims for goods or services sold but not paid for
- Non-payment of money loans
- Auto negligence
- Minor accidents
Statute of Limitations
The statute of Limitations 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 your shopping carts were stolen or destroyed, you generally have two years from the date of the damage to file an "injury to personal property" lawsuit in Hawaii. 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 and Notice." This form tells the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what your damages are. There are separate forms for claims involving residential security deposits and other small claims. The forms are available on the courts' Web site, or you can get them from the district court clerk.
An attorney can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case, even if she doesn't represent you in court. However, if you hire an attorney to help with your case, the court won't make the other party pay your attorney's fees even if you win.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Statement of Claim and Notice Form, 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, which will show the date and time of your trial. You're responsible for delivering a copy of the Statement and Notice to the defendant (called "service of process" or "serving the defendant").
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 the Hawaii small claims courts. The exception is when the defendant files a counterclaim for an amount over $5,000 and one party demands a jury trial. If this happens, the case will be transferred to the circuit court for the area.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the judge 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 (or you may owe him if he filed a counterclaim). If the judgment is in your favor, it will state how much the defendant owes you.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $3,200. How much will you charge me to file suit against him?
- My family and I moved out of a public school system and it won't give me a refund on administrative fees I paid at the beginning of the year for my son. Can I sue the school district in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?