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Small claims court: five fallacies to understand

By Johns, Flaherty & Collins SC on Wednesday, May 25th 2011


If you’re thinking small claims court may be the right course for you to resolve a dispute, it’s important that you understand how it really works. You can read the guidelines for your local county, but here are five fallacies, commonly held, that they probably won’t describe. 

Fallacy #1—It’s not serious. Small claims court has strict requirements. If you don’t follow the guidelines, you could lose your case or have it thrown out. Further, judgments from small claims court are just as enforceable as those from traditional civil courts.

Fallacy #2—You don’t need a lawyer. Even if you don’t need a lawyer for trial—and you may not—lawyers can be very helpful to consult when you’re preparing your case. They can review the facts and your materials to be sure it’s something you can handle on your own, and they may be able to identify legal issues that you may not be aware of but that may help or hinder your case.

Fallacy #3—The trial is merely a chance to tell a story. In addition to telling your story, you need to provide documentation of your claims or defenses, just as in a traditional civil courtroom. You may also need to subpoena witnesses who support your case and make it credible.

Fallacy #4—The disputed amount must be $5,000 or less to qualify as a small claim. Though the limit for small claims court in Wisconsin is $5,000, that limit actually applies to the limit on the judgment you can win. Your disputed amount may be higher than $5,000, but when you consider the length of time and expected expense of a traditional civil action, you may choose small claims court and the lesser judgment. Small claims actions are usually resolved within six weeks of the filing date. Traditional civil actions often take a year.

Small claims court may also be a wise course if you think you may be liable for some percent (less than 50) of the claim, such as with a car accident where you sustain something like $7,000 worth of damages and the other party $1,000 and both of you are cited.

In some cases, including landlord-tenant disputes, courts will allow “fee shifting.” With fee shifting, courts can add attorneys’, filing, service and statutory fees to the judgment, thereby potentially surpassing the $5,000 limit. Generally, fee shifting is allowed in any dispute that falls under unfair trade practices.

Fallacy #5— The judge will berate the losing party. You won’t find Judge Judy in local small claims courts, and the judge you do find likely won’t give either party a sense of being dishonored by the outcome. In fact, judges actively encourage people to resolve their disputes and normally handle cases with decorum and a spirit of reconciliation.

For more information on small claims court, contact Joe Veenstra at 608-784-5678.

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