How to Sue in Florida

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There are a number of reasons you may decide to sue someone: to enforce a contract, to recover damages, to protect your property or to replace a fiduciary. Technically, dissolving a contested marriage or partnership is also suing someone, because the petitioner files a lawsuit asking the family court to help end the partnership in an equitable way. You can sue another party in the Florida small claims court, county court or circuit court, depending on the value of your claim.

Types of Defendants

You may sue an individual or a business. It's important to name the parties to the action correctly on all court documents, otherwise your claim could be rejected.

If the party is a person, she is designated by her legal name. A minor (under the age of 18) may be sued directly or through her parent or legal guardian.

If you want to sue a business, you must name the correct legal entity. For example, a business may be a sole proprietorship, a partnership or a corporation. A sole proprietorship is an unincorporated business owned by one person, who may or may not use a trade name. The correct legal party is the individual owner. A partnership is an unincorporated business owned by two or more individuals. Again, the correct legal parties are the partners' actual names.

The situation is different with a corporation, as this is a legal entity with a separate legal identity from its owners, no matter how many owners it has. Contact the Florida Secretary of State, Division of Corporations at (850) 488-9000 to get information on a corporation, including the current status of the corporation, the names and addresses of the corporate officers and the name and address of the corporation's registered agent.

Sue in Small Claims Court

You can sue someone in the small claims court for amounts not exceeding $5,000 (excluding costs, interest and attorneys' fees). The small claims court is not a specific building or courtroom or even a separate court, but a simplified court procedure designed to resolve civil disputes involving relatively small amounts of money, for example, a situation in which someone owes you money and will not pay you or has your property and will not return it.

If you believe you are owed or entitled to more than $5,000, you may limit your claim to $5,000 in order to take advantage of the simplified procedure in the small claims court. However, remember that your recovery will be also limited to a maximum of $5,000.

Small claims cases are heard in the civil division of the county court, and follow the Rules of Summary Procedure for Small Claims Court.

Anyone who is 18 years of age or older may file a small claim. If someone under 18 years of age wants to file a small claim, her parent or guardian must file the suit on her behalf.

To begin a small claims civil lawsuit in Florida, file a Statement of Claim form with the clerk in the county in which the contract was entered, where the event giving rise to the suit occurred, or where the defendant to the suit lives. The clerk of court will tell you what Florida small claims court filing fee is due. This varies by the amount of your claim. For example, in Orange County, the fee for small claims of less than $100 is $55; for small claims $100 to $500, the fee is $80; and for small claims $501 to $2,500, the fee is $175.

Write a brief, clear explanation of the issues relating to your claim on the Statement of Claim and specify the amount for which you are suing in the allocated space. If the claim is based on a promissory note, sales contract, lease, repair bill or other type of written document, attach copies of it to the Statement of Claim.

The Statement of Claim form must also include the name(s) and address(es) of the party or parties you are suing and your name, mailing address and telephone number. If the court cannot locate you, your case may be dismissed.

After you have completed the Statement of Claim form, the defendant must be officially notified that a lawsuit has been filed against him via a "service of process." The Statement of Claim is sent to the defendant with a Notice to Appear form (a summons), either by certified mail with a return receipt requested, or in person by a sheriff or private process server. Check the the clerk of court about any specific rules relating to service. For example, in Seminole County, you cannot serve a defendant by certified mail if he lives outside the State of Florida.

A pretrial conference is held to give you the chance to present your case. If both you and the defendant are in attendance, you are likely to be ordered to go through mediation. If the dispute cannot be settled, a trial date is scheduled. You must attend the trial with any witnesses and all documentation relating to your claim.

If you win a small claims court case in Florida, you become a judgment creditor. The court grants you a judgment stating how much the other party owes you. You then have 20 years after the court files the judgment to collect the amount of money owed.

Using the small claims court is a way to file a lawsuit in Florida without a lawyer, because the process is a lot quicker and more straightforward than a claim in another court. You appear in court with the person you are suing (the defendant), you both present your side of the argument and the judge decides whether you are entitled to compensation.

In Florida, you are entitled to a jury trial in the small claims court. You must request this in writing at the time you begin the action. The defendant may also request a jury trial within five days of being served with the Statement of Claim, or at the pretrial conference. If neither party request a jury trial, it is deemed waived.

Read More: How to Take a Person to Small Claims Court

Sue in County Court

You can sue someone in the county court for matters involving $5,001 up to $15,000. The county court judges are the same as the small claims judges, but they follow a different procedure. The county court judges follow the Rules of Civil Procedure.

Most people instruct a lawyer to help with this process, as it can be complicated. The action begins with a complaint, setting out the claims the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) makes against the defendant. The complaint is usually accompanied by a summons, a document requiring the defendant's presence in court as part of a pending court case.

The defendant has to answer the complaint within a certain time, typically about three weeks. The defendant's answer states what parts of the complaint, if any, he admits to, what he contests and what defenses he may have, and whether he has any counterclaims against the plaintiff or any other party.

If the defendant doesn’t answer the complaint, the court may enter a default judgment against the defendant. If the answer contains a counterclaim or a third-party complaint, the party against whom that claim is made also has to answer within a certain time.

The parties exchange documents and other information about the issues relevant to the litigation during a process called discovery. Discovery can take three forms: written questions answered under oath, document production, and depositions, formally transcribed and sworn statements taken in front of a court reporter or other court officer.

If, during the process, the parties manage to reach a settlement agreement, this resolves all issues between the parties and the court is involved on an informal basis only. A civil settlement requires judicial approval only when one of the parties is a minor, when there is a class action or in other special circumstances that do not typically arise during litigation.

If the parties do not reach a settlement agreement, the case goes to trial. Lawyers use the information gathered during discovery to prepare for trial.

The fee to sue in county court varies by county, but is typically about $300 for claims from $5,001 to $15,000, not including costs, interest and lawyers' fees.

Sue in Circuit Court

If you are suing someone for an amount more than $15,000, file a lawsuit with the circuit court. Generally, the procedure to sue in the circuit court is the same as in the county court. The fee to sue in the circuit court varies by county, but is typically about $400 for claims of $15,000.01 and above, not including costs, interest and lawyers' fees.

Civil Lawsuit in Florida Deadlines

Florida has certain statute of limitations laws governing time limits for the filing of lawsuits and other civil actions. These range from two to five years, depending on the procedure. A lawsuit for libel or slander must be brought within two years of the date of the incident or discovery of a wrong. The statute of limitation is also two years for a professional malpractice suit.

The statute of limitations is four years for injury to a person, fraud, injury to personal property and trespass. If the case is based on a written contract, your deadline for filing a suit is five years after the defendant defaults on the agreement.

Alternatives to a Trial

Lawsuits are typically very stressful, time-consuming and expensive – with no guaranteed outcome. Every case is different and, depending on the circumstances, the entire process may take a few months or several years. You have many other methods available to try to resolve a disagreement as alternatives to a lawsuit.

Negotiating directly with the other party may resolve the issue without filing a lawsuit. Sometimes, the other party is not even aware of the issue and is willing to take remedial action once informed. For example, most companies will replace or refund the price of a faulty product when they get a complaint. Negotiation is simple, cheaper and quicker than a trial.

An independent third party, known as a mediator, may be able to help two parties reach an agreement. Both parties can still put their case forward, with the help of lawyers if they wish, to try to reach a settlement without the time and expense of a full trial. The mediator cannot impose a settlement, but she is a skilled negotiator and understands complex issues of law.

Arbitration is similar to a court trial because the parties do not enter into negotiations, but an arbitrator – not a judge – makes a final decision on the matter. Unlike a mediator, an arbitrator has the authority to determine a legally binding settlement. Lawyers may be involved in arbitration, but they don't have to be, and the process is much less expensive than a full trial.