People have minor disputes every day. Like a buyer not getting the goods or services he paid for or a landlord who refuses to return a tenant's security deposit, for example. Many times, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney to get your money back. The attorney may charge you close to or even more than the amount you're owed. And what if you can't afford a lawyer to begin with?
This is where small claims court can help. In Indiana, like most other states, 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 courts in the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the Indiana small claims 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. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf").
Generally, you file a small claims case in the "small claims" division or "docket" of the appropriate Indiana "trial court," which could be a circuit, superior or county court, depending on where you live. If you live in Marion County, which includes the city of Indianapolis, you need to file suit in one of the county's small claims courts.
In Indiana, the most you can recover in small claims court is $6,000. If your claim is a little over $6,000, 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 $6,000, 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
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Security deposit refunds
- Unpaid or "back" rent
- Minor accidents
- Landlord/tenant disputes, including eviction, so long as the amount of back rent owed by the tenant is $6,000 or less
- The return of personal property (valued up to $6,000) that the defendant has taken and refuses to return to you
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, and you can't use the court to have your legal name 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, or from the date that you "discovered" your injuries, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Indiana. 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 "Notice of Claim." This form 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 property you returned to you. The court clerk can give you a copy of the form, or you may be able to get it online, depending on the county in which you live.
In Indiana, you can represent yourself in court or you can hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court. An attorney can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. However, in most cases, if you hire an attorney the court won't make the other party pay your attorney's fees, even if you win.
The court clerk may help you complete the Notice 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. At the time you file, the clerk will give you a copy of your completed Notice 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 arrange for a copy of the Notice of Claim to be delivered to (or "served on") 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, or in some courts it may be heard by a "referee," an experienced attorney who's appointed by the court to help with small claims cases. At trial, you, 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 Indiana' small claims court. However, after you file your Notice of Claim, the defendant can request a jury trial and pay a fee. Then, the case is transferred out of the small claims court and into the regular division or "docket" of the circuit, superior or county court where the case was filed.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing and seeing all of the evidence, 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, it will specify how much money the defendant must pay you, or the property he must return to you. If you (or the defendant) disagree with the judge's decision, you can appeal, that is, ask a higher court to look at the case to see if the judge made any mistakes. You have to appeal within 30 days after the judgment is issued.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Indiana Rules of Court, Small Claims (or the special rules for Marion County) can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $6,800. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims?
- I was in a car accident with a city bus, and the city is refusing to pay for all of the damage to my car. Can I sue the city in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?