After a slip and fall, a bike crash, or even a fender-bender, the first thing most people think is: Who's going to pay? The next thought is: which lawyer should I call? Depending on how serious your injuries are, you may be able to skip question number two and go straight to small claims court. For many, the words "small claims court" dredges up images of feuding roommates, angry landlord and lovers' spats as soon on TV shows titled "Judge ____."
In reality, small claims court is just what the name suggests. It's meant to settle issues involving small amounts of money. The amount varies from state-to-state, but generally it is less than five thousand dollars.
If the amount you're seeking falls within the range of a small claims court, it could be better for you to settle it yourself. Except in serious or extraordinarily complicated cases, an attorney will negotiate for ten to twenty-five percent above what you can get on your own. However, they can charge anywhere from twenty to forty-percent of that amount in fees and administrative costs. After the adding and subtracting is done, you could come out with more if you handle your own case.
Personal injuries that are not life threatening and don't require long term care can be addressed in this court. Some examples of this kind of injury are: slip and fall accidents, defective product issues, home accidents and car, bike, or pedestrian accidents.
Before you head to court, there are some questions about your case that need to be answered. Are you within the statute of limitations? And, do you know how much you claim could be worth? Each state has a deadline for filing lawsuits in small claims court. You'll need to make sure you aren't past that deadline. The earliest that clock starts ticking is the date of harm. The latest the limitation can begin is on the date the plaintiff actually discovered the harm. Sometimes a judge will set a date based on when he or she considers the plaintiff should have reasonably discovered any issue.
Part of the small claims process is writing a demand letter. In that letter you will have to detail exactly what happened and the extent of your injuries. You will also have to quantify a cost of those injuries. In general, this is made up of medical care or hospital bills, lost income, property damage, emotional damage and loss of social or educational experiences such as school or family events. Make sure you have bills, receipts and any other documentation to support the dollar amount you come to for physical damages. You'll have to present these in court.
Assigning monetary value to emotional damage and loss of social or educational experiences is a little trickier. One way to do this on your own is to use a set of formulas many insurance adjusters use. They use a scale of 1.5 to 5 to rate emotional damage. Milder cases are assigned something close to 1.5, while more severe injuries are given a 5. To use the formula, take the total of all your bills and tangible damages and multiply them by a number from the scale. The number you come to is the cost of your "emotional damage." It may not be perfect, but it is a rough amount to work with. Most judges will be familiar with this method and could be more open to awarding damages based on it. Make sure you can articulate how and why you used the formula to the judge.
Once you've gone through all of these processes, the last step is to contact your local clerk of courts to set a date and get your chance to go before a judge.
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