It's common for people to have minor disputes over things like money and personal property. For example, a customer may not want to pay a mechanic for repairs he made to her car, or a bank may want to take someone's car because he used it as collateral on a loan that he stopped repaying. 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 the amount you're owed or the value of the property you're after.
This is where a small claims court can help. In North Carolina, the small claims courts, sometimes known as "magistrate 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 North Carolina. 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 of the county where the defendant lives, but there are some exceptions.
In North Carolina, the most you can recover in small claims court is $5,000. If your claim is a little over $5,000, 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 $5,000, 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 are:
- Goods or services sold but not paid for or delivered
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Landlord/tenant disputes, such as actions for security deposit refunds, unpaid rent and evicting tenants
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
- Recovery or return of specific personal property, like vehicles, furniture, and farm equipment
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 injuries, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in North Carolina. 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.