How you will proceed with a suit for property damage begins with thinking about how much damage you have. Suppose someone's negligence has destroyed your house and its contents. In that case, you will want to hire an attorney and go through settlement negotiations and, if necessary, litigation to recover damages on that scale. On the other hand, you can sue in small claims court for small amounts. The precise amount will depend on your state, with upper limits ranging from $2,500 to $25,000.
Using an Attorney
Building and proving a negligence case can be challenging, particularly for a non-lawyer. So, regardless of how high the small claims money limit is in your state, if you have damages that will make a material difference to your lifestyle, you should at least consult with an attorney. Most tort lawyers will engage in an initial case evaluation and consultation on your case at no cost to you. And, generally, if they do take your case, they will take it on a contingency fee basis. In a contingency fee case, you do not pay any attorneys' fees until your lawyer concludes your case in your favor, whether by settlement or award. The attorney will receive a pre-designated percentage of your award at that point. If your claim does not end in your favor, you will not owe any attorneys' fees.
Your attorney will do much the same things you would have done in small claims court, except probably more thoroughly and professionally. You can expect to be asked to provide documentation of all the financial claims and may have to testify in your case.
One crucial difference is that you can seek punitive or exemplary damages in civil court rather than in small claims court. Usually, to recover these damages, the defendant's conduct has to be so outrageous that it shocks the court's conscience. This is not an easy standard to meet, but if it appears your case might, you should consider seeking them.
Suing for Property Damages in Small Claims Court
There are two potential claims for property damage in your case: negligence and intentional damage.
Negligent Property Damage
To be eligible to recover property damages from someone else's negligence, you must allege and prove that:
- The individual causing the damage owed you a duty of care
- The individual failed to act with reasonable care and thereby breached that duty through their conduct
- The breach caused your damages and
- Financial compensation will make you whole.
If you can prove all of this, plus the extent of the damages, you should receive a money judgment from the judge. Remember, you have to prove the costs, or you won't get an award.
Intentional Property Damage
If someone damages your property on purpose, the case becomes slightly different. You now have what is called an intentional tort. You must prove that the person intended to act the way that person acted and cause harm to your property. You will also need to prove the amount of your damages.
Intentional property damage, again depending on the amount and on the plaintiff's capacity to pay, may make more sense in civil court because you may be able to seek punitive or exemplary damages. These damages are usually not available in small claims court.
Preparing for Small Claims Court
If the other party doesn't respond or refuses to pay, you may need to go to small claims court. Usually, small claims courts handle cases valued at $10,000 or less, though this varies by state.
In small claims court, you will need strong evidence that the other party owes you a debt. Provide copies of the initial agreement or contract, receipts, text messages, emails or other documents referring to the case.
Usually, a small claims court hearing will take place 30 to 75 days after you file a lawsuit. If the other party doesn't respond, you may automatically have the court rule in your favor and enforce the debt.
How Much it Costs
So how much will you spend by suing in small claims court?
- Court Filing Fees: The amount you will pay to file a small claims lawsuit depends on how much you are suing for and where you are suing. You can expect to pay between $30 to $400 to file the lawsuit. If you cannot afford to pay court fees, you can ask the court to waive the fees.
- Serving Costs: Once the lawsuit is filed, you must notify the other party that you have sued them. This is called "serving." Serving Costs can range from $20-100 depending on the local area.
The Benefits of Small Claims Court
- Court filing fees are cheaper in small claims than in other courts.
- The process is faster in small claims than in other courts, as your hearing will usually be scheduled 30-70 days after you file the lawsuit.
- Lawyers are generally not allowed in small claims, which helps keep the costs of suing low.
How to File a Small Claims Lawsuit
- Prepare and File the Court Paperwork - If you end up in 30-40% of cases where the demand letter doesn't work, you can prepare and file the court paperwork for small claims court next. The upside is that you can typically do this yourself and don't need to send much evidence with your filing. You just need to know the name of the party you're suing, the amount you're suing for, and answer some basic yes/no questions.
Again, you can do this yourself, or use Dispute's Small Claims Filing platform, which includes online paperwork prep, live online notarization, and online filing.
- Serve the Defendant - After the court accepts your paperwork, you have to serve your court paperwork to the defendant to notify them they're being sued officially. This is also another point where people will often realize they should settle before going to court. This is the one step you aren't allowed to do yourself. To avoid bias, the court requires you to get someone else to serve your case and file a proof of service in court (a simple statement that they swear they served the defendant). The free way to do this is to get a friend or family member who isn't part of the case to help you. The hassle-free professional way to serve court papers is to hire a process server and let them take care of it.
Taking the First Step in Your Lawsuit
If all of this work seems complicated or daunting, rest assured that it's easier than it initially seems. 2.7 million small claims court cases are filed annually in the US, which is only growing as more people realize how easy it is to enforce their legal rights in court.