Should I Go It Alone?
Small Claims Court—Benefits and Risks
By Zachary C. Myers
Your neighbor across the street, Ricardo, is having a party. He has a few drinks and starts reminiscing about his glory days on his high school football team. He tells his nephew Kipling, “Back in ’82, I could throw a pigskin threw the hole in tire three miles away.” Kipling saunters to the porch and picks up a football, hands it to Ricardo, and says “prove it.”
Ricardo draws back and hurls the tawny, aged, leather ball with all his might. The ball flies in a triumphant arc. But instead of passing over the mountains several miles away, the journey of the football is interrupted by your living room window. CRASH. Your window is broken and shards of glass are scattered all over your sofa.
“Uhh. You broke my window!” you exclaim
You get an estimate and determine that it will cost $2,000 to fix the window. Ricardo refuses to pay to fix it. You want to sue him, because it’s not fair that he smashed your window when he was showing off for his friends.
Should you get an attorney? Should you go it alone in small claims court?
Small Claims Court
According to Justice Christine Durham of the Utah Supreme Court, “small claims court procedures are designed to permit and encourage parties to represent themselves.”
Small claims court provides an expedited process for individuals to resolve disputes. The maximum judgment in small claims court is $10,000 (including attorney fees but exclusive of court costs and interest).
Benefits of Small Claims Court
The main benefits of small claims court are expedited process and reduced cost.
- Expedited Process
Small claims court provides an expedited process for resolving disputes.
Small claims matters have “simplified rules of procedure and evidence promulgated by the Supreme Court.” Utah Code § 78A-8-102 (2015). The rules for pursuing an action in small claims court can be found here—https://www.utcourts.gov/resources/rules/srpe/.
For example, there is no discovery. Instead, at trial the parties can bring documentary evidence and witnesses. The judge will conduct the trial and question witnesses.
The rules of evidence are relaxed. Unrepresented parties do not need to be experts in legal minutia in order to present evidence to the court. For example, the judge may allow hearsay (out of court statements introduced to prove the truth of the matter asserted), even though hearsay is generally not allowed under the Utah Rules of Evidence.
The expedited and simplified process available in small claims court makes it much easier for individuals to represent themselves in court and obtain a judgment against someone who owes them money.
- Reduced Cost
Pursuing a small claims judgment is less expensive than a claim in district court. For one thing, the court filing fees are generally less expensive than the fees for district court. Additionally, because parties are encouraged to represent themselves, it is possible to avoid the cost of hiring an attorney.
Risks of Small Claims Court
The risk of pursuing an action without an attorney in small claims court is that you may forfeit important rights that you are not aware you had.
- Limited Judgment
Small claims court judgments cannot exceed $10,000. You will lose the right to collect any amount over $10,000 if it turns out that your damages exceed this amount.
Going back to the earlier example, you may think that Ricardo only owes you $2,000 to fix your window, but after filing the small claims action, you discover that as a result of the broken window, water leaked into your house and your sofa and carpet were ruined. Additionally, outside air and water came into your house and a mold infestation took root in your walls. Now you have to spend $20,000 to replace your furniture, carpet, and clean out the mold infestation.
At trial, you tell the judge about all the damages, but the judge only gives you $10,000, because that is the maximum judgment she can award.
The limit on damages presents a risk to claimants who have claims that may be worth more than $10,000.
- Claim Preclusion
Another risk is that by bringing a small claims action you may lose the right to bring other claims against the same person in a later lawsuit.
Individuals are “precluded,” i.e. not allowed, to bring a lawsuit against a person if the lawsuit is for a claim that could and should have been raised in a previous lawsuit.
For instance, imagine that when Ricardo threw the football at your house, your spouse was sitting in the living room playing chess. After smashing the window, the football hits your spouse in the face. You now have two claims against Ricardo: a claim for the damaged window and a personal injury claim for hitting your spouse. You and your spouse choose to sue Ricardo in small claims court for smashing the window, but do not include the personal injury claim in the lawsuit, because you don’t want to pay for a medical expert to testify about your spouse’s injuries. You plan to hire an attorney for the personal injury claim after you obtain judgment for the window.
You go to trial and obtain a judgment against Ricardo for $2,000.
Later, you try to sue Ricardo for personal injury. The judge dismisses your second lawsuit because you already sued Ricardo for the same occurrence.
By failing to bring the two related claims together in the same lawsuit, you forfeited your right to the personal injury claim. The two claims were based on the same underlying facts; therefore, they must be brought together in the same lawsuit.
If you have two claims against the same person—one that is simple and one that is relatively complex, you might be tempted to seek a judgment in small claims court for the simple issue and wait to hire a lawyer for the second claim. This can be very risky. By seeking a judgment in small claims court, you may forfeit rights to other related claims against the same person.
Small claims court can be a simplified and inexpensive method to obtain a judgment of less than $10,000. However, there are risks involved. Before filing a small claims affidavit, an individual should consult with an attorney to determine whether she is forfeiting any important rights by pursuing a small claims action.