Consumer's Guide to Small Claims Courts
Prepared by the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation
This pamphlet is a revision of a previous Tell it to the Judge brochure published in December 1980 by the Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General.
- What Are Small Claims Courts?
- Are There Any Limitations to Small Claims Courts?
- What Other Factors Should I Consider Before Filing a Suit?
- If You Are Considering Small Claims Court Action
- How Do I File My Claim?
- "Tell It To The Judge"
- If I Win, How Do I Collect My Money?
- Should I Consult a Lawyer?
My wife and I were going on a Caribbean vacation. We held confirmed airline reservations to St. Thomas, where we were to meet several other couples. We all had chartered a sailboat to cruise the islands. However, when it was time to board our flight, the airline bumped us because they were overbooked. The next available flight was two days later. As a result we had to buy additional airline tickets to catch up with the sailboat at Antigua. The airline paid us "denied boarding compensation," but they refused to reimburse our additional air fare or the value of the two days on the cruise we lost.
Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this consumer is not alone in his frustration. Most people at one time or another feel cheated, confused and helpless. Now, however, when nothing else seems to work, thousands of people without legal training are turning to small claims courts to get results.
Small Claims Courts, created and operated by state and local governments, constitute an important part of our nation's overall system of justice. These courts were created to promote convenient, prompt, effective and inexpensive resolution of disputes at the grass roots level.
The basic purpose of small claims courts is to help people recover small sums of money without having to hire a lawyer. These courts offer consumers a chance to present their complaint, in person, to an impartial judge who can order the offending person or company to pay money owed. Court procedures are generally simple, informal and inexpensive.
Almost all states and localities have some type of small claims court. The rules of these courts vary from state to state, as do the amounts which may be awarded. You may file a complaint in small claims court when you can show that a person or a business owes you money or has harmed you financially, and will not pay. Here are some examples of situations in which you might consider using such a court:
- Your connecting flight is canceled, and the airline arranges a van to get you to your destination. Instead of a one-hour flight you have an uncomfortable four-hour ride. The airline denies your request for reimbursement of the difference between air and ground transportation.
- You buy a ticket for a seat in first class from a consolidator. He delivers a coach seat ticket and refuses to refund any of your payment.
- An airline cancels your flight and cannot get you out until the next day. They won't put you up in a hotel and you end up spending $90 for a room.
- An airline loses your luggage. You try unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement. You can show that the value of the lost item was much more than the airline offers to pay.
Are There Any Limitations to Small Claims Courts?
Small claims courts do not offer the best course of action for consumers in every situation. Generally, you may sue only for money. Property or merchandise normally cannot be recovered. For example, if an airline damages your coat, a court might grant you a cash award rather than ordering the airline to replace the coat.
You must be prepared to appear in court when your case is set. Expenses such as time lost from work are not usually recoverable. In some situations, it may be more effective, less troublesome, and quicker to retain an attorney, or to seek assistance from another source, such as a consumer affairs office or governmental agency.
To determine if small claims court is the best course of action for you, consider whether:
- The amount of your claim is less than the monetary limit established by the state or local law.
- The party you are suing does business in the court's jurisdiction. Small claims courts are usually not effective in resolving disputes with firms that do not do business in the state or with people who live outside of the court's jurisdiction.
- You have carefully reviewed and followed any stipulations of the contract of carriage and have given the company a reasonable opportunity to meet its obligations.
Before you sue, attempt to settle the dispute out of court. If you are unable to settle the matter, carefully consider whether to proceed with a lawsuit.
A lawsuit will require your time and attention and eventually an appearance in court. When deciding whether or not to file an action, you should take the following steps:
Communicate your complaint clearly to the person or business involved. If dealing with a local business, talk to the general manager, owner, or an official at as high a level as possible. It's a good idea to document your complaint clearly and concisely in a letter.
In addition to the DOT's Office of Consumer Affairs, you may wish to check with a local or state consumer affairs office to determine whether they can help resolve your complaint. There are also many private sources of assistance, depending on the nature of your complaint. A visit to the public library may be helpful in locating the best sources of assistance.
Be sure you keep records of any calls or letters you initiate or receive.
Consider any compromise that might help you settle the matter. A compromise might be preferable when you think of the effort required to go to court and the fact that court judgments often do not result in your getting everything you want.
Check your local telephone directory under your city, county or state listings for small claims court or a similar listing. Or contact a consumer affairs office, attorney general's office, or bar association for information on the location of the court.
Telephone, visit or write the clerk of court's office for details regarding court procedures. Many courts have brochures available. Some have clerks or counselors who are trained to assist consumers.
Check with the clerk or counselor to make certain your complaint comes within the jurisdiction of the court.
If your complaint involves a substantial amount of money or if you are confused about how to proceed, consider consulting a private attorney. Even if you plan to present your own case to a small claims court, a few minutes spent with a lawyer beforehand can be valuable. If you want to talk to an attorney and do not think you can afford it, check with a local legal aid or legal services office.
If you have never been to small claims court, attend a court session as a spectator. Proceedings are open to the public.
Once you decide to go ahead, do not wait too long to file your complaint. There is often a limit on how long you can wait before taking legal action and the older a complaint gets, the harder it is to win.
Although the procedures for filing actions in small claims courts vary from state to state, the following suggestions should be helpful no matter where you live:
- Ordinarily, you will need to complete a "complaint" or "claim," either in person or by mail. In some states, there will be a standard form for this purpose. In states without a standard form, ask the clerk or counselor for advice.
- Word your complaint or claim clearly and simply. Be prepared to state whom, why and for what amount you wish to sue. Be able to explain in a brief and accurate manner the nature of your complaint.
- Upon filing a claim, you will become the plaintiff and the party you are suing will become the defendant.
- If you believe that a person and the company employing that person are responsible for your damage or loss, it is usually to your advantage to name both as defendants. Similarly, if another party has been injured by the action of the defendant(s), you may wish to list that other party (perhaps your spouse) as a second plaintiff in your complaint.
- You will be required to state the legal name and current mailing address of the defendant. This is necessary to make sure the defendant can be notified that you have instituted a suit against him or her. Sometimes the name on a sign may not be the company's "legal" name. Airlines somtimes are referred to by their initials; for example, the "legal" name for TWA is "Trans World Airlines, Inc."
- In most states, you must file your complaint or claim in the jurisdiction where the defendant has a business location. An airline generally can be sued in a small claims court in any jurisdiction where it operates flights or has an office.
- Check with your state or local business licensing or registration agency, secretary of state's office, corporation commission, or Better Business Bureau to determine the location of a company, or to verify the company's precise legal name and mailing address.
- You will probably have to pay a small filing fee when you file your complaint. Fees vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction The fees may be returned to you in the amount you are awarded (the "judgment") if you win your case.
- After the complaint or claim has been submitted and a date for the "hearing" or "trial" is scheduled, the clerk will notify the defendant of the upcoming trial or hearing, and a representative of the company will be summoned to appear in person to answer the complaint or claim. The defendant may have a right to ask that a different date be set, if a good reason can be shown. If the defendant ignores the summons and does not show up at all, you will probably win your case by default.
- You will also have to personally appear at the trial or hearing. Do not expect to handle your case by mail. No one, even a family member, can handle it for you, unless that person is also a plaintiff.
In many jurisdictions, delays for various reasons occur frequently. When these delays change the day set for a hearing or set over the matter for hearing again, they are called continuances.
A small claims court hearing or trial is relatively simple and informal compared to proceedings in other courts. Nevertheless, you should be prepared to present your case to the court in an organized and convincing manner. Here are a few suggestions:
- Be sure to arrive at the court on time on the day of your hearing.
- The judge may ask the parties to go briefly into another room to see if they can arrive at a last-minute voluntary resolution, sometimes in the company of a counselor or mediatorIf this occurs, accept the judge's suggestion and try to resolve the dispute.
- You will be given a chance to tell your side of the story to the judge. The judge may give you an opportunity to ask questions of the other party. The judge will already be familiar with the arguments of both parties based upon the written complaint and any supporting documents which have been submitted. The trial will move quickly. You only need to present a synopsis of your written statement.
- Sometimes the judge will permit other people to be witnesses in your case if they are personally familiar or if they are experts in the area of your complaint. Check with the court clerk to ensure that this legal resource is available to you.
Be prepared to show the judge:
- Contracts, agreements, and/or tickets
- Letters you and the defendant have exchanged relating to the controversy.
- Bills, canceled checks, receipts, or written estimates
- Photographs of damaged property or the actual damaged goods and other material that can be considered essential to your case.
Be polite at all times and feel free to ask questions about things you do not understand. Concentrate on your main points and be brief.
If the judge decides in your favor, he or she will issue an order (judgment) stating that you have won your case and that the defendant owes you a certain amount of money. This amount may include expenses incurred in bringing the action (court costs). Sometimes, the judgment may permit the defendant to pay the award to you in installments.
Generally, the court will not act as a collection agency on your behalf. If the defendant does not pay the judgment within a reasonable time, inform the court clerk. The clerk can probably tell you about collection procedures you may take to "execute" the judgment, such as having a law enforcement officer "attach" property or "garnishee" a salary.
Collecting the money is a separate process that can be difficult. It is particularly difficult to collect money from "fly-by-night" operators, firms located in another area, companies no longer in business, and businesses or people who have filed for bankruptcy or have no assets.
What If I Lose?
In most states, small claims court decisions may be appealed. If the judge rules against you and you think you might want to appeal the decision to a higher court, ask the clerk about procedures. Appeals do involve additional expenditures of time, effort and money, and perhaps the services of an attorney.
Because most small claim courts do not allow attorneys to be present, you are expected to be your own lawyer. However, you may wish to see a private attorney in situations such as the following:
- A sizable amount of money is involved.
- The issue involved is so serious or so important to you that you want to reduce the risk of losing.
- You know in advance that the other side will be represented by an attorney.
- You lose in small claims court and want to explore the possibility of an appeal to a higher court.
- You try to collect the judgment, wait a long time, and still cannot get your money.
- You are notified that someone else is suing you.
Finally, you should be aware that attorneys representing the public at large (prosecutors, district attorneys, attorneys general, and other lawyers employed by regular government agencies) are not usually permitted by law to provide legal advice to individuals regarding small claims court matters.