People have minor disputes every day, like a buyer not getting the goods or services he paid for, or a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. You may have to pay an attorney close to or even more than the money you're owed. And what if you simply can't afford to hire one?
This is where a small claims court can help. In Louisiana, 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 courts of the state.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Louisiana. 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.
Where you file a small claims case depends on where you and the defendant live or where the incident you're suing over happened. If it's in a big city, you probably need to file your case in a City Court. If it's outside city limits, that is, in a "rural" area, you probably need to file suit in a Justice of the Peace Court. Generally, you need to file your suit in the court that covers the city or parish where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions.
If you're not sure if you're area has a City or Justice of the Peace Court, check the local telephone book, or visit the clerk's office at your local courthouse.
In Louisiana, the most you can recover in small claims court again depends on where the suit is filed. If you file suit in a City Court, the most you can get paid is $3,000, If you file suit in a Justice of the Peace Court, the most you can recover is $5,000. If your claim is a little over these amounts, 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 these amounts, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
These limits may differ from court to court, so be sure to ask the court clerk how much money you recover if you file a lawsuit in her 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 refunds of security deposits or payment of unpaid or "back" rent. Also, a landlord can file a suit to evict a tenant in a Justice of the Peace Court, but not in a City Court
- Recovery or the return of personal property, such as cars, furniture and equipment
- Car repair disputes
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce, child custody and legally changing your 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 to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Louisiana. 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 Citation." This form tells the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what your damages are. The Statement also includes an "Attention Sheet," which tells the defendant that he has 10 or 15 days to respond to or "answer," your claim, depending on the court where you filed. 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).
In Louisiana, you can represent yourself in small claims court or you may hire an attorney to help you with the case and represent you in court. A lawyer 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 make the other party pay your attorney's fees if you win the case.
The court clerk may help you complete the Statement of Claim and Citation. She can help in a lot of ways, like help you with what words to use and maybe even typing the Statement of Claim and Citation for you. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, like telling you if you have a "good" claim against the defendant. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Statement of Claim and Citation, which will show the date and time of your trial. It will also 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 help you make arrangements for having a copy of the Statement of Claim and Citation 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 an arbitrator. 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 (in the City Court) or a justice of the peace if you filed in one of those courts. 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 Louisiana small claims courts.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge or justice of the peace. After hearing the arguments of both parties, she 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 has to pay you or what property he has to turnover to you. In the City Courts the judge's decision is final. In the Justice of the Peace Courts, either the plaintiff or the defendant may appeal the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Louisiana 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 $3,600. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than small claims?
- 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?