Bringing a Lawsuit

If attempts at settlement fail, a lawsuit may be your last resort. Choose small claims court if you can; it's the best our legal system has to offer when it comes to disputes that don't involve too much money. It's relatively fast - you'll wait a few weeks or months, instead of years - procedures are simple and designed for laypeople, and (in many states) lawyers aren't allowed.

The most you can sue for in small claims court is currently around $5,000 to $10,000; it's different in every state (A list of every state's small claims court limit is in Barking Dogs). But don't automatically give up on small claims court just because your claim is over the limit. Because of the higher cost of proceeding in regular court, you may still come out ahead by reducing your claim so it fits in small claims court.

Example. Natalie lives in Illinois, where the small claims court limit is $5,000. She is injured when a dog runs in front of her as she rides her new 15-speed bicycle down the street. The bike is totaled, and Natalie runs up more than $4,000 in medical bills. All together, she's out about $5,300. Should she abandon small claims court and get a lawyer? You probably already know the answer. By the time Natalie pays a lawyer, and the higher filing fees of regular court, she'll lose at least the $300 that she must give up if she files in small claims court.

Before you start a small claims court case, check on other limits peculiar to small claims court in your state. For example, some states do not allow people to sue for pain and suffering. Most states have free publications that explain the rules for filing a small claims court case: what papers to file, when to file them, how to schedule a hearing, and other procedures.

If you have much in the way of medical bills or time off work, small claims court may not be any help, and you may need to go to "regular" court. If that's the case, you may want to see an experienced lawyer, at least to get some advice on whether or not you have a good case.

Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo), provides valuable guidance on preparing a small claims court case. Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare and Try a Winning Case, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman-Barrett (Nolo), explains how to handle a civil trial from start to finish.


"As a general rule dogs in a dream are a good omen and symbolize friends. To hear a dog bark happily signifies pleasing social recognition, but if it barked fiercely, you are being warned of possible legal troubles."72

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