Small claims courts give you the opportunity to resolve disputes for small amounts of money without great expense. In Pennsylvania, small claims cases are usually governed by state laws, so the procedures are basically the same in all counties. Some counties have local procedures that may be different. 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.
Is Your Case Appropriate for Small Claims?
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
How to State Your Claim
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.
Rules for Serving the Other Side
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.
Show Up in Court
Your hearing will be set for 12 to 60 days from the day of filing. If you do not show up on time, the judge may dismiss your claim. If the other side does not show up, you typically will be awarded a judgment by default, which means you automatically win. If both parties show up, then then you both have the opportunity to argue your case before a judge. After hearing your arguments, the judge may give a decision immediately, or you may receive the judgment a few days later in the mail.
Even if you win, you may find that the other side is not ready or willing to write you a check just yet. He or she has 30 days from the date the judgment is entered to either re-open a judgment that was entered in default, or to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. An appeal is essentially a fresh trial, only this time it's the other side who is filing a complaint with the court.