Small claims courts give you the opportunity to resolve disputes for small amounts of money without great expense. In Pennsylvania, small claims cases are governed by state laws, so the procedures are basically the same in all counties. The most common types of small claims cases are breach of contract, property damage and automobile accidents. These cases are heard in the Magisterial District Court in each county. You can argue your case yourself or have an attorney or another person represent you.
Before You File
First, make sure your case is appropriate for small claims court and that it falls within the statute of limitations which can vary by case. The statute of limitations sets out the amount of time you have to file a case after the event that you're suing over occurs. After the time allowed for your type of case has passed, you can no longer file a lawsuit.
Pennsylvania small claims courts accept cases for amounts up to $12,000. Other things to consider before filing include:
- Whether you have sufficient evidence to prove your case
- Whether the defendant can pay the judgment if you win
- Whether the potential judgment is worth the time, effort and expense necessary to file and present your case
Where to File
You must file your case in the county where the other party lives or where the incident occurred. Visit the Magisterial District Court in the appropriate county. An interviewer can help you complete a statement of claim in which you will note the details of the case, including dates, times, places and the amount in dispute. You'll need the other party's full name and physical address because the court can't send documents to a P.O. box. If the defendant is a business entity, you should know whether it is a sole proprietorship, partnership or corporation. You can file a statement of claim by mail if you don't need assistance from an interviewer. You may have a lawyer or someone else help you file the case and represent you in court, but you must complete and file a form for authorizing him to do so.
The clerk of the court will inform you of the filing fee and the fee for serving the party you're suing with a copy of the statement of claim. Service involves the clerk sending a copy of the statement of claim to the defendant on your behalf. You can choose to have it delivered by certified or registered mail, by a court-appointed party who isn't involved in the case or by the sheriff. It's usually best to have the sheriff serve the documents if you think the defendant will avoid accepting them. If you win your lawsuit, these fees are added to the judgment so you'll be reimbursed.
You may be eligible for a fee waiver if you can't afford the fees and can prove financial hardship. The court clerk can provide information on these requirements and tell you how to apply for a fee waiver.
Your hearing will be set for 12 to 60 days from the day of filing.