Car Accident Cases in Small Claims Court

Should you consider small claims court to get compensation for vehicle damage or minor injuries after a car accident?

Updated by , J.D.
Was a police report filed?
  • In every state, "small claims courts" offer a simpler and faster alternative to a traditional lawsuit, and it's fairly common for car accident cases to be heard in small claims court. Here's what to know at the outset.

    • Small claims court might be a good option if the car insurance company isn't offering a fair settlement, or if you're trying to get money from an uninsured, at-fault driver.
    • The amount you want to recover for your car accident-related losses (like unpaid medical bills and vehicle damage) must be within the dollar limit of your state's small claims court.
    • The small claims process is meant to be straightforward, but there are pros and cons to bringing your car accident case to small claims court.

    Can I Take My Car Accident Case to Small Claims Court?

    It's important to check the latest rules in the court where you live, but you usually have the option of going to small claims court to try to get compensation after a car accident. That means you can present your case that the person you're suing (the "defendant") was at fault for the car accident, and ask the small claims judge to compensate you for:

    We'll cover the pros and cons of taking a car accident case to small claims court a little later on. But the biggest consideration is usually this: You need to have a firm sense of the dollar value of all your car-accident related losses, and of what you'd be willing to accept, because the total amount you ask the small claims judge to award you (and the amount you can receive) can't exceed the small claims limit.

    Which brings us to our next question...

    How Much Can You Win In Small Claims Court?

    As we just mentioned, the simple answer here is that the amount you can win in a small claims court car accident case is usually capped by the small claims dollar limit in your state.

    If you're asking for an amount that exceeds the small claims court limit, you'll need to either:

    • file a car accident lawsuit in your state's regular civil court system, or
    • reduce the amount you're asking for so that it comes under the small claims cap.

    A few states have carved out special dollar limit rules for car accident cases. For example, the normal small claims cap in Massachusetts is $7,000, but small claims judges in that state may have leeway to exceed that amount when making a compensation award in a car accident case. You'll find a link to specifics on the small claims limit in your state in the "Next Steps" section at the end of this article.

    When Should You Take Your Car Accident Case to Small Claims Court?

    As we've mentioned a few times in this article, the key issue here is whether the total amount of your car accident-related losses (and/or the amount of compensation you'd be satisfied with) falls below the small claims court dollar limit in your state.

    Aside from that all-important consideration, let's look at a few pros and cons of taking a car accident case to small claims court (as opposed to going the usual route of a standard car accident lawsuit in civil court).

    Pros of Small Claims Court

    • lower filing fees
    • simpler, more informal rules
    • a quicker day in court, and a quicker decision, and
    • the defendant might be ordered to pay your fees and other costs if you win.

    Cons of Small Claims Court

    • a lawyer (usually) can't represent you
    • you'll be responsible for standing up in court, presenting your case, and answering the judge's questions
    • you'll need to show up in court during standard workday hours
    • if you lose your case as the plaintiff, you can't usually appeal the decision, and
    • even if you win your case, you might not necessarily get paid, especially if the at-fault driver is uninsured.

    How Hard Is It to File a Small Claims Court Case?

    It's very easy. The details vary slightly from court to court, but typically the process involves:

    • completing a fairly simple form (often available online, or always at the court clerk's office; this may involve checking a few boxes and filling in some blanks)
    • paying a small filing fee, which usually increases the more you're seeking in your claim; the other driver may be ordered to pay you back for the filing fee if you win the case, and
    • having the court papers delivered to the person you're suing; this is called "service of process;" (for a fee, you can hire a local sheriff or constable to do the service, and if you win, this expense will likely be included in your judgment).

    What Do You Have to Do to Win Your Car Accident Case In Small Claims Court?

    Every car accident case consists of two main questions, or issues:

    • Who caused the accident?
    • What harms 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 can't prove that you had any damages, you won't be awarded anything. So, prepare your evidence to prove both liability and damages:

    • 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.
    • Bring in the police report, photographs of the accident scene, any diagrams that might help, and any other evidence you can think of.

    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?

    If the other driver has insurance, their insurance company will probably pay the judgment. Their only other option is to appeal the case.

    If the other driver is uninsured, 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 Mathis" and "Judge Judy," except that they're rarely as entertaining.

    In small claims court, the judge hears what each side has to say and then decides the case, sometimes 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.

    Next Steps

    Now that you understand the basics of how a car accident claim might work in small claims court, you can find more in-depth information on the process (and the rules) on our companion site (Nolo.com):

    If you've read this far and you're starting to question whether your car accident case might be worth more than the small claims limit in your state, or you're wondering whether you'd be comfortable handling your own case, you might want to consider other options.

    It may make sense to discuss your situation with an experienced legal professional. Learn more about when you might need a car accident lawyer. You can also use the features on this page to connect with a lawyer near you.

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