Everyday, people have disagreements over money, like a landlord who refuses to return a tenant's security deposit, or a customer who won't pay for repairs made to her car. Often, these minor 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 the amount you're owed. And sometimes you simply can't afford to hire an attorney anyway.
This is where a small claims court can help. In Missouri, the small claims courts, or as they're commonly called, the "people's 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 Missouri. 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.
In Missouri, the most you can recover in small claims court is $3,000. If your claim is a little over $3,000, 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 $3,000, 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 delivered or paid for
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Security deposit refunds
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as actions for security deposit refunds or unpaid or "back" rent, but landlords can't file eviction actions in small claims court
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, recovering personal property that rightfully belongs to you 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 five years from the date of the accident, or from the date that you "discovered" your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Missouri. 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 "Petition Small Claims Court." 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. The court clerk has this form and others you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). You can also get some forms online.
In Missouri, you may represent yourself in small claims court, or you're allowed to hire an attorney to represent you in 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 be required to pay your attorney's fees if you win the case.
The circuit court clerk may help you complete the Petition, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim, such as telling you if the statutes of limitations have expired on your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Petition, which will show the date and time of your trial. You will also receive a docket number, or reference number for your lawsuit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. Also, the clerk will explain how you can make sure that a copy of your Petition is delivered to or "served on" the defendant. Generally, you pay the clerk a fee to have it mailed to 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. 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 Missouri small claims court.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the judge 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 state exactly how much money the defendant has to pay you. If either you or the defendant are unhappy with the judge's decision, you have 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 Missouri Rules of the Small Claims Division of the Circuit 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 $3,700. How much will you charge me to file suit against him?
- I was in a car accident with a city-owned bus, and the city won't pay for all of the damages to my car and won't pay some of my medical bills. 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?