People have minor disputes every day. They range from a buyer not getting the goods or services he paid for, to 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 may be close to or even more than the amount you're owed.
This is where a small claims court can help. In Mississippi, 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 state courts.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Mississippi. 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 legal guardian as a defendant as well.
In Mississippi the most you can recover in small claims court is $3,500. 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
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 or delivered
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Landlord/tenant disputes, including actions for security deposit refunds, unpaid or "back" rent and eviction
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- The return 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, 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 three years from the date of the accident, or from the date you "discovered" your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Mississippi. 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 "Declaration and Affidavit," which essentially tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what you're damages are, that is, how much money or what property you want. 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 Mississippi, you may hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court, or you may represent yourself. An attorney 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 include your attorney's fees in the amount of the judgment if you win the case.
The circuit court clerk may help you complete the Declaration and Affidavit, 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 forms, 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 arrange for the defendant to get a copy of your forms.
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.
In Mississippi, either you or the defendant may request a jury trial in a small claims court.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, he'll either make an immediate decision, or he 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 what property he must return to you. If either of you are unhappy with the judge's decision, you have 10 days to appeal the decision, that is, you may ask that the case be looked at again by a higher court.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The Mississippi Rules of Civil Practice and Procedure in County Courts and Justice Courts can tell you more about how the small claims process works.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $3,900. How much will you charge me to file a lawsuit against him in a court other than small claims court?
- I was in an accident with a state-owned maintenance truck, and the state refuses to pay for all of the repairs to my car. Can I sue the State of Mississippi in small claims court?
- If I hire you to go to small claims court, do I have to be there at trial, too?