People have minor disputes over money and personal property nearly every day. Good examples are when a buyer doesn't get the goods or services he paid for; a landlord refuses to return a tenant's security deposit; and someone won't return some equipment or tools that were loaned to him. 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 more than what you're owed or what the property's worth.
This is where a small claims court can help. In Maine, 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 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 Maine. 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 as well.
You file a small claims case in the appropriate district court, which usually is the district court for the town or county where the incident you're suing over happened, but there are some exceptions.
In Maine, the most you can recover in small claims court is $4,500. If your claim is a little over $4,500, 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 $4,500, 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
- Non-payment of money loans
- Automobile negligence
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as suits for refunds of security deposits, to get unpaid or "back" rent, and to evict tenants from leased property
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- To have specific items of personal property retuned to the rightful owner, such as equipment, tools, cars, furniture, etc.
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
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 six years from the date of the accident to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Maine. 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 a Statement of Claim. This form tells the court and the person you're suing why you're filing suit and what your damages are, that is, how much money you want or what property you want turned over to you. The district court clerk has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant), and there are some forms online.
In Maine, you may represent yourself in small claims court, or you may hire an attorney to represent you. A lawyer can give you advice about your suit and what evidence you'll need to win your case. In most instances, the court will make the other party pay your attorney's fees if you win the case.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Statement 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, like tell you if you have a good case or if the statute of limitations has expired on your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Statement, which will show a docket number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. The clerk also will explain to you your options for having a copy of your Statement delivered to (or "served on") the defendant. After the defendant has been served with the Statement, the clerk will schedule a "hearing" or a trial date for your case.
Trial or "Hearing"
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 or a "hearing" 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 Maine small claims courts.
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 get any property returned to you. If the judgment is in your favor, it will state exactly how much the defendant must pay you or what property he has to give you. However, either party has 30 days to "appeal" the decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $5,200. How much will you charge me to file suit against him in a court other than a small claims court? What are my chances of recovering the full $5,200?
- A city salt truck destroyed my mailbox and ripped up my lawn, but the city won't pay for the damages. 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?