When the average person normally thinks of two things, they think of Small Claims Court. Some have no knowledge of it, while a good share picture Judge Judy or the People’s Court. Rightfully, most small business owners don’t like the idea of court in general, and in that vein, independent restaurant owners don’t normally line up outside the courthouse when a problem arises. Yet, if overcoming the anxiety that comes with going before a judge saves you several thousand dollars, it may be best to put aside whatever reservations you have.
Before we get started, let me be clear: I am not a legal professional, and my intention is not to provide legal advice, but to alleviate any fears a restaurant owner might have at the prospect of small claims court. Fear interferes with knowing your options and making good decision. Also, state laws vary, cases vary and circumstances vary, so I just want to present the basics. Most states give more in-depth guides like this one by the state of California.
What is Small Claims Court?
A basic definition of Small Claims Court is “a special court intended to simplify and expedite the resolution of minor disputes involving small claims,” according to FindLaw.com’s Legal Dictionary. Small Claims Court were created so that one person, business or institution can sue another person, business or institution (within limits) for a relatively small amount of money without the hassle and expense of a long, involved trial. Small claims court has cases where the amount at stake is limited (the limit ranges from 3,000 to 10,000 dollars based on the state). The Court is for civil cases, not criminal cases (which are started by the government). Accordingly, it’s normally about money or property in the form of damages, not jail or fines.
See What You Are Getting Into
Research is very important before appearing in Small Claims court. Each state has different rules and if you want to sue or are sued in small claims court you should learn the rules. Many courts will provide information beforehand. Don’t be afraid to call the clerk and ask about the particular procedures of your court. Small Claims courts are busy places and the time before the judge tends to be minimal. The fee to file a lawsuit in Small Claims is small, normally under $100. There are no juries and rarely are their lawyers (as it isn’t worth the expense or allowed by state law) besides the judge. Sometimes, the case is decided by an arbitrator, an experienced lawyer who decides the case.
A couple things are self-explanatory, but should be emphasized. You should prepare for Small Claims Court in advance. You should assemble all the documentation and witnesses necessary to prove your case. You should consult legitimate online resources whether government or educational. Of course, remember to keep your cool in court and be cooperative with the judge and respectful of the court (tell the truth).
You have other options. Before going to Small Claims Court, you may check out opportunities for mediation or even a letter informing the other party that you will go to court unless they meet your demands.
Disputes are a part of business, but you have options. There is a good chance that you may find yourself in Small Claims Court, so you should seek out more information than the dramatics you see on Judge Judy or the People’s Court.