People have minor disputes every day. For example, sometimes a landlord won't return a former tenant's security deposit, or a customer won't pay for the repairs a mechanic made to her car. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. The fees you may have to pay an attorney may be close to, or even more than, what you're owed. Sometimes you simply can't afford an attorney to begin with.
This is where a small claims court can help. In Kentucky, the small claims courts settle 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 Commonwealth courts.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Generally, individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Kentucky. 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 need to name his parent or guardian as a defendant.
You file a small claims case in the appropriate district court, which usually is the district court for the county where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions. Small claims cases are handled by a special department or "division" of the district court. Even though small claims cases are handled by a special division of the district court, you file your case with the clerk of the circuit court for the county.
In Kentucky, the most you can recover in small claims court is $1,500. If your claim is a little over $1,500, 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 $1,500, 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
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- Goods or services sold but not delivered or paid for
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as actions for security deposit refunds and unpaid or "back" rent, and even eviction actions, so long as the tenant doesn't owe more than $1,500 in back rent
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Recovery of specific personal property, like equipment and furniture
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody; money damages based on something bad or harmful that someone said or wrote about you (called "slander" and "libel," respectively); and changing your legal name.
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 you were injured in a car accident, you generally have one year from the date of the accident, or from the date you discovered your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Kentucky. 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 "Small Claims Complaint." This form tells the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what your damages are. The court clerk 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 it online.
In Kentucky, you may represent yourself, or you may 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. In most instances, the other party will have to pay your attorney's fees 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. He can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, like which statute of limitation applies to your case. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Complaint, which will be stamped with a "docket" or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk.
You're responsible for making sure that the defendant gets a copy (or is "served with") a copy of your Complaint and a "Summons," which basically tell the defendant when and where to show up for trial or a "hearing." The clerk will explain how your options, but generally you need to pay the clerk to send it by certified mail, or you can pay the sheriff of the county where the defendant lives to deliver these papers.
"Hearing" or Trial
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 district court 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 Kentucky small claims court. The exception is when the defendant demands a jury trial. He must make the demand in writing and within seven days before the hearing date. The case will be moved out of the small claims court and into the regular district court.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, 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, the judgment will specify how much the defendant must pay you, or what property he must return, and it will require him to pay your court costs and filing fees. Either you or the defendant has 10 days to appeal the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Kentucky Small Claims Rules of Court can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $1,800. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims court? Will it be faster?
- I was in a car accident with a city-owned bus, and the city won't pay all of my medical bills or for all 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?