We've all had it happen -- some small injustice occurs that costs us money.
Maybe it's a landlord who held back several hundred dollars of your security deposit for no legitimate reason. Someone you paid to do work for you didn't finish it or bungled the job. Whatever it is, you may find yourself out hundreds or even thousands of dollars -- money that you'd like to get back.
If you've got a big-money case against a large corporation with deep pockets, it's pretty easy to find representation. You can often join class action lawsuits, like the Vioxx litigation against Merck
But when you've got a small case against a small business or individual contractor, it can be tough finding a lawyer. That's where small claims court can come in handy.
Taking it to Judge Wapner
Most states have procedures for resolving disputes involving relatively small amounts of money. While the limits vary from state to state, you may be able to collect up to $5,000 or more in small claims court.
Most often, you'll file your lawsuit at your local county courthouse. A quick call to the clerk of court or visiting the courthouse website can get you the information you need to file and how to do it correctly.
Putting your case together
At small claims court people can handle their own claims without having to hire a lawyer. Because the amounts involved are so small, it often wouldn't make sense to pay a lawyer's fees to collect it. You may have an attorney present -- some states allow you to collect extra money to pay attorney fees if you win -- but it's not necessary.
To win, however, you need to make a convincing case.
- Get all the relevant facts straight and prepare a concise, thorough written statement that explains what happened.
- Gather documentation that supports your claim: contracts, cancelled payment checks, and receipts for money you spent fixing problems.
- Bring photos, if possible, that would help shed light on your case.
- Bring along any witnesses who can directly support your story; their testimony can make a big difference.
- Stay calm. Unlike on TV, these judges deal with dozens of cases like yours daily, and they're not interested in drama. Too much emotion will make it more likely you'll end up the loser.
It also helps to know something about the law. For instance, some states have special laws that let you collect additional damages in certain cases, such as when a landlord unfairly keeps your security deposit. Make sure you ask for everything you deserve.
After each side has had a chance to speak, the judge will make a decision right then. But even if you win, you still have to collect from the other person. That can take some extra work, but your small claims court judgment supplies several options to help you get what you're owed.
So if someone has done you wrong, don't let them get away with it. Find out if small claims court can help you get your money back. Winning your claim can do more than just restore your bank account -- it can give you the justice you deserve.
For more on standing up for your rights, read:
Our personal finance newsletter, Motley Fool Green Light, offers advice that can help you handle disputes and other tough situations. Take a free, 30-day trial and learn more about protecting yourself from wrongdoers.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has helped several people put together cases for small claims court. He owns shares of Merck. Merck and Washington Mutual are Income Investor recommendations. RC2 is a Hidden Gems pick. The Fool's disclosure policy makes sure justice is served.