Small claim courts are intended as a simple way for individuals and small businesses to resolve local disputes quickly and inexpensively when low dollar amounts are involved. However, things get more complicated when the person or entity you want to sue lives in another state. In certain cases, you can sue out-of-state defendants in your home state. Failing that, you may have no choice but to file a case in a state where the other party lives or works. Only you can decide if your case is worth that effort.
Suing Out-of-State Defendants
Small claims courts relax procedural rules so that litigants can get in and out with minimal expense and time. However, the due process protections of the Constitution still require that the party sued, called the defendant, must have some contact with the state in order to be sued there.
Some states permit you to sue a party who lives out-of-state in your local small claims court if you seek damages for an automobile accident the defendant had in your state. Others permit such a suit if the out-of-state defendant owns land in your state that is the basis of your complaint. It is also possible to sue an individual if you manage to serve him while he is in the state.
If no exceptions apply, you will have to sue an out-of-state defendant in the small claims court in her home state.
Different rules apply to suing businesses. Any business that is incorporated in your state can be sued there. Likewise, if a business has an office or agent in your state, or does regular business in your state, you can sue it in state.
Get Informed About Small Claims Rules
If you decide to proceed, start with gathering information. Not every state has small claims courts, and not every state with small claims courts permits nonresidents to sue residents. Carefully investigate the rules of the state you plan to sue in. If it doesn't have a small claims court -- called justice courts or magistrate courts in some states -- you are out of luck.
If the state does have small claims courts, visit the website of the court nearest to where the defendant lives. Determine whether state rules permit a nonresident to bring suit in small claims court. Many do, like Connecticut.
If so, find out whether a procedure exists for filing a small claims action through the Internet or by mail. Determine whether that state permits you to be represented by an attorney in small claims court. Many don't, but some, like Iowa, do.
Know before you go. If you can't get conclusive information on these subjects online, call the small claims court clerk to seek answers. Alternatively, contact an attorney in the jurisdiction and pay for one hour of her time to get the answers you need.
With this information in hand, calculate the costs involved in pursuing the action in another state. The minimal small claims court fees might be augmented tenfold by the cost of travel to the state for hearings, local attorney fees, the cost of investigation and the time and inconvenience involved. According to legal experts at Nolo Press, the distance involved in out-of-state small claims lawsuits tend to make them expensive and unwieldy.
Only you can make the determination as to whether, in your circumstances, it is worth the expense. If you live a few miles from the state border, the case is different than if you are a Californian who wants to sue someone from Maine. Factor in the amount you might win and your chances of winning. Consider whether the defendant might file a counterclaim against you.
Follow Court Procedure
If you decide to file in another state, learn and follow the small claims rules. Some states require you attempt informal resolution before you sue. This means writing a letter to the defendant explaining your case and asking for compensation. Fill out the complaint form by providing the information about the defendant and your case. Arrange for the defendant to be served with the complaint, and book your tickets for the trial date.
If you are suing in a different state, open settlement negotiations early. A settlement for less than you feel entitled to may be worthwhile if it allows you to get compensation and avoid travel fees.