Depending on the circumstances of your case, you might have the option to pursue small claims court instead of hiring a personal injury attorney. However, keep in mind that small claims court has special rules and limitations as to what kinds of cases it can hear.
Here are the questions to ask yourself when deciding between small claims court and civil court:
- Is your claim small enough for small claims court?
New Jersey small claims court allows you to sue a person or business to collect a small amount of money. The limit for a case in New Jersey small claims court is $3,000; in other words, you can only bring a case to small claims court if you are demanding $3,000 or less from the defendant (or $5,000 if the demand is for the return of a tenant’s security deposit). If your medical bills, lost wages, property damage, and all other costs of the incident exceed $3,000, you are probably better off pursuing a civil lawsuit so you can receive full compensation.
- How complicated is your case?
Small claims court procedures are simpler, allowing the plaintiff to present his or her case quickly, inexpensively, and often without the representation of a lawyer. Therefore, small claims court is not equipped to handle complex cases with conflicting testimonies, disputed evidence, or other difficult legal issues. If your case involves more complicated legal issues, it might be best to hire an attorney to help sort those out, rather than trying to go it alone in small claims court.
In addition, many personal injury lawsuits are resolved at the settlement table, rather than going all the way to court. A personal injury attorney will be able to navigate the settlement process and advise you as to how (and when) to negotiate with the other party. If your case does make it all the way to court, a personal injury attorney has an intimate understanding of how to use evidence, expert witnesses, and other tools to prove your claim.
- Does your claim fall into one of these categories?
There are certain types of claims that cannot be filed in small claims court. This includes professional malpractice claims (e.g. alleged malpractice by a doctor, dentist, or attorney); claims for support or alimony from a marital dispute; and claims arising from a probate matter, such as a will.
Small claims court typically hears cases like:
- Breach of (written or oral) contract
- Return of money used as a down payment
- Property damage caused by a motor vehicle accident
- Property loss or damage
- Consumer complaints for defective merchandise or faulty workmanship
- Payment for work performed
- Claims on bad checks
- Claims on back rent
- Return of a tenant’s security deposit (up to $5,000)