Car Accident Cases in Small Claims Court

If you can't settle your car accident claim with the insurance company, don't be afraid to go to small claims court.

Was a police report filed?
  • Every state has a small claims court where you can file a car accident small claims lawsuit. It is one form of an Alternate Dispute Resolution at your disposal in the lawsuit process. Use it if the insurance company doesn't offer what you think is a fair settlement, as long as the amount you want to recover is within the dollar limit of your state's small claims court. In fact, small claims courts are so valuable that you might consider claiming a little less than you think you should recover in order to keep your case under the small claims court limit.

    How hard is it to file a small claims court case?

    It's very easy. Usually, you complete a fill-in-the-blanks form the Court Clerk will give you or you can get online. And you pay a small filing fee which the other driver will be ordered to pay you back if you win the case. Next, you must have the court papers delivered to the person you are suing. This is called "service of process." For a fee, you can hire your local sheriff or constable to do the service. If you win, this expense is included in your judgment.

    Are there any complicated pre-trial procedures in small claims court?

    No. The idea behind small claims courts it to simplify procedures so that ordinary citizens without any special training can represent themselves. There may be some limited pre-trial procedures that are available -- such as the right to send you opponent written questions, called Interrogatories, which he must answer under oath. If your opponent sends Interrogatories to you, be sure to answer them. If you don't, you could be penalized by the court. Your case could even be dismissed. Many small claims courts have informational pamphlets to guide you, and, if you're lucky and don't live in an area with very busy courts, the court staff will probably also answer your questions.

    Do technical rules of evidence apply in small claims court?

    No. Assuming only that testimony or exhibits concern relevant topics -- such as how your accident happened or the injuries and damages that you suffered -- the court will receive the evidence.

    What do you have to do to win your car accident case in small claims court?

    Every car accident case consists of two questions, or issues: who caused the accident, and what harms and damages resulted from the accident. The first issue is usually called "liability." The second is called "damages." You have to prove liability and your damages to win your case. If you do not prove liability, you will lose, even if you have proven that you suffered damages. If you prove liability, but don?t prove that you had any damages, you won't be awarded anything. So, prepare your evidence to prove both liability and damages.

    You will testify. If liability is questioned by the defense, call other people who saw the accident as witnesses, if there are any. If there are no other witnesses to the accident, prepare to show that your version of how the accident happened is more consistent with common sense or with other evidence. The parts of the vehicles that were damaged or the point on the roadway where the impact occurred are often key facts that show how the accident happened. Prepare diagrams that show these things. Bring in photographs as evidence. Small claims court judges love citizens who prepare their cases. Simply by coming to court prepared, you will gain the judge's respect and be on your way to a judgment in your favor.

    If you win, will you be paid?

    Probably. If the other driver had insurance, her insurance company will probably pay the judgment. Their only other option is to appeal the case, and appeals are the exception, not the rule. If the other driver did not have insurance, you may have trouble collecting the judgment. If you have a judgment and the other driver won't pay it voluntarily, learn what procedures your court has to help collect the judgment. Possibilities include attaching or "garnishing" the wages of the other driver and attaching his bank account or other assets. Learn and follow your court's rules.

    Can you really represent yourself in small claims court?

    Absolutely. With just a small filing fee, a small fee to have the court papers served on the other driver and a little effort, you can have your day in court. Small claims courts are very much like the television court shows, such as Judge Judy, except that they are rarely as entertaining. In small claims court, the judge hears what each side has to say and then decides the case, almost always right then, on the spot. So if you can't settle your car accident claim with the insurance company, don't be afraid to go to small claims court.

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