Small claims

By Molly Kearney
January 29, 2009

Shannon Keough

All around the country each day, citizens file lawsuits. It has almost become fodder. You touched this, I didn’t want you to, see you in court. Neighbors sue neighbors and family sues family. Many because they can, or maybe just to get on a television show such as “Judge Judy.” In one case, a man sued his ex-wife in over $4,000 worth of unpaid babysitting fees.

But there are real reasons small claims cases are filed. Many view small claims cases as a quick way to get your money back. However, in reality, to file and pursue a case in small claims court requires many steps.

First, you must go to municipal court. The Municipal Court of Philadelphia on South 11th Street deals primarily with landlord/tenant and small claim/contract cases.

There is a monetary cap of $10,000. If someone is looking for more than that, then they must go to a different court.

Kathleen P. Stockton, partner with Archer & Greiner, said that “claims are typically filed for cases such as breach of written or oral contract, property damage and consumer complaints for defective merchandise.” Many other reasons qualify. Stockton went on to explain that many cases that are pictured on television court are probably filing a claim for attention or even as a joke.

Small claims court itself is informal and most of the cases are filed as a way to recover money. Since a lawyer is not required, both parties must be knowledgeable about the issue and provide evidence such as documents or images.

A judge alone will decide the case, and many scenarios are possible. The trial in this type of case is between whoever filed and the defendant.

Arianna Bennett, sophomore psychology major, has been involved in a court case herself, although not a small claims case. Bennett was tailgating at a football game where she tried to break up a fight and was then assaulted. “I had to file a complaint against the guy for simple assault at the N.J. State Police barracks there, identify him and then about two weeks later we decided to drop the charges because the guy was already being charged with several other violations,” Bennett said.

Bennett’s ordeal did not end at the court house that day. She was required to appear as a witness to her attacker on other charges.

“Court is a long process and if you are there and decide to continue with the charges, be willing to sit through everyone else’s first,” Bennett said.

With that experience in mind, when taking a small claims case to court one must really think about the situation. There are no guarantees that the case will be won. What happens after the time, effort and money is put in? It is recommended that most small claims cases try to settle out of court.

If the person whom you are filing against does not show at trial, you will be granted a “default” judgment for the amount of your claim, and your filing and service costs. But even if you win the judgment, it is hard to actually collect the judgment if the defendant decides not to pay you.

Filing a small claims case is almost like a game of dice; you win some, you lose some. The outcome could be positive but in most cases, nothing is won at all.

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Molly Kearney

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