Litigation has a bad reputation in this country as being expensive, complex and time-consuming. Most states have established small claims courts to make the process of litigating limited claims easier, faster and less expensive. Colorado permits individuals and businesses to bring certain types of cases seeking money damages in small claims court. But different types of cases have different statutes of limitations for filing, that is, there are different laws for how long a person has to sue after an event.
Anyone considering filing a case for money damages in Colorado should see if they qualify for using small claims court. They should also be familiar with the statute of limitations applicable to their type of case.
Statutes of Limitations
A statute of limitations is a state law that sets out how much time after an accident or other type of incident a person has to bring an action in court. These statutes set out "windows of time" in which a person can file a complaint. These statutory windows come in different sizes. Some provide a period of two years from the date of the event, like non-auto personal injury claims; others can run up to six years, the Colorado statute of limitations for breach of a written contract.
What if someone doesn't manage to get a lawsuit filed within the time limit allowed by the applicable statute of limitations? They are forever barred from bringing a suit on the matter. If someone tries to file a suit barred by the statute of limitations, the other party can have the case dismissed.
Types of Small Claims Cases
In Colorado, as in most states, small claims court is a court of limited jurisdiction. That means a person cannot bring just any case at all in small claims court. First, the case recovery is limited to $7,500. A person can bring a case for a larger amount of money, but they cannot collect a judgment for more than $7,500. Everything above that amount is waived.
Second, only four types of cases can be taken to small claims courts in Colorado. The first is a suit for recovery of money. This includes almost any case that is seeking money damages. It can be for injuries caused by negligence, intentional conduct or recklessness; it also can be for contract damages, a quarrel over a security deposit, an attempt to collect a personal debt or anything similar.
Lawsuits seeking money damages for breach of contract can be heard in Colorado small claims court. Landlord tenant disputes can also be resolved, and so can issues involving restrictive covenants on residential property. Other matters are not permitted in small claims court. For example, cases for injunctions, divorces, bankruptcy and criminal matters are not heard in small claims court.
Colorado Statutes of Limitations
The statute of limitations to enforce an oral contract is three years in Colorado. The statute to enforce a written contract is far longer at six years. If someone is suing over personal injuries in a car accident, the window of time is three years. This is also true for property damage stemming from a car accident. Any cases involving rent and debt collection disputes have a six-year statute of limitations.
What about personal injuries other than those sustained in car accidents? That limit is two years and it applies to tort actions, including suits for negligence, trespass, malicious abuse of process, malicious prosecution, outrageous conduct, interference with relationships and tortious breach of contract. Medical malpractice actions also have a two-year statute of limitations, but it doesn't necessarily start when the malpractice happens. The medical malpractice statute of limitations starts to run when the injured party discovers, or should have discovered, the resulting injury. Veterinary malpractice has a similar two-year statute.
Small Claims Statute of Limitations
Note that these statutes of limitations are not particularly for small claims court in Colorado. These limitation periods apply in every state court in Colorado. There are no statute of limitations specific to actions brought in small claims court.
So, if someone wants to bring a lawsuit in Colorado for breach of a written contract, they can do it in small claims court if they are willing to limit their damages to $7,500. Alternatively, they can file the lawsuit in superior court, if the amount of damages sought is larger. No matter which court they decide to file in, the statute of limitations for breach of contract is six years.
Filing a Small Claims Action
Small claims courts are intended to be user-friendly, and the Colorado court is no exception. The court publishes a self-help website for those considering resolving a claim. While the person filing the case – termed the plaintiff – can get legal help, they don't have to have a lawyer. The person sued, the defendant, doesn't have to get an attorney either.
The plaintiff starts the case by filling out a form complaint. The court forms are available on the state small claims court website. They basically have to identify themselves and the person sued, then describe what happened and the reason for the complaint. Formal, legal language is not required.
The court clerk accepts the small claims forms and filing fee and sets a court date on a summons. Then the plaintiff must serve the summons and complaint on the defendant. Both parties prepare for trial by organizing their evidence and lining up witnesses. When the trial date comes, both must appear and present their case to the magistrate.
Conduct of a Small Claims Court Case
An individual cannot file more than two Colorado small claims court complaints per month, or 18 in a calendar year. There are no jury trials in small claims, but all cases are heard before a magistrate. The court rules are not complex, and the magistrate will generally allow each side to present its case. If a party does not show up, the court can grant a default judgment against them.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.