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.
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.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called a "Complaint." This form tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what you want, that is, how much money you want or what property you want returned to you, for example. The court clerk can give you this and other forms you may need to get your case moving (or to defend yourself, if you're the defendant). You also need to complete part of a form called a "Summons," which basically tells the defendant that he needs to be in court on specific date and time.
In North Carolina, you may represent yourself in small claims court, or you may hire an attorney to represent you. 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 as part of your award if you win the case.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Complaint and Summons, 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 statute of limitations has expired on your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed forms, which will show the date and time of your trial. You will also receive a docket number, or reference number for your suit. Use this number to identify your case whenever you contact the clerk. Finally, the clerk will help you make arrangements for having a copy of your papers 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 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 magistrate. At trial, you, the defendant and all of the 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.
Generally, there are no jury trials in the North Carolina small claims courts.
The judgment is the decision given by the magistrate. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the magistrate 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, or the property you sued for. If the judgment is in your favor, it will specify how much the defendant has to pay you or what property he has to turn over to you. You or the defendant may appeal the magistrate's decision, that is, ask that the case be looked again by a higher court, within 10 days after the judgment is entered into the court records.
Small Claims Court Procedural Rules
The North Carolina Rules for Small Claim Actions in District 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 $5,800. How much will you charge me to file suit against him outside of small claims court?
- I was in a car accident with a city-owned bus and the city refuses to pay for all of my medical bills and car repairs. 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?