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Florida small claims in a nutshell

By Craig Linn Ames

The People’s Court. Florida Statutes provide for a forum to air small claims in the County Court system before a Magistrate or County Judge. Sometimes the Small Claims Court is referred to as the “People’s Court.” This term of common usage harks back to a bygone era when business transactions and disputes among neighbors could be resolved by a justice of the peace using relaxed rules of civil procedures.

Small claims court is most often used to collect a small money award or to obtain the return of property. Equitable relief is available, but it is often not requested. A party may request a trial by jury, but this is usually impractical due to the cost, time delay, and the fact that juries are more unpredictable than judges. Court reporter services can be used to preserve the record for appeal, but it is costly. Typically, in a small claim, one does not want to pay for this service. So, the consequence of foregoing a court record means that the court’s decision is not appealable as to factual issues, since there is no record for the appeals court to review.

Filing a Small Claim. A small claim is limited to $5,000. Any person who is wronged may file a lawsuit without the aid of an attorney. When a case is filed by a layperson, the judge is not allowed, by court rules, to assist parties on court procedures to be followed, presentation of material evidence, and questions of law. The court may not instruct any unrepresented party on accepted rules of law.

Awards, Legal Representation, Recovery of Costs and Fees. Due to the court formalities and rules restricting court assistance, legal representation can be important. The biggest mistake claimants make in small claims court is failing to follow the specific instructions of the judge concerning what evidence will be needed at trial. Also, there can be a fatal technical flaw in the basics of the case which includes the elements needed to be proven. Attorneys can represent a party over the phone, without appearing in court, if the judge permits. If an attorney is used, the last claim in the complaint should be for attorney fees. The claim should state the plaintiff (the party bringing the lawsuit) has retained an attorney and is obligated to pay a reasonable fee for his/her services. The court can award actual damages, costs, and attorney fees.

Decision of Bringing a Suit. One must decide if it is worth the time, effort, and cost to go through the process. A person may end up paying damages to the other side. The court can rule the other way for many reasons. A case requires evidence acceptable in court, and proof of liability under an acceptable legal theory. In more complicated theories, such as negligence or implied warranty, a person can win only if the facts fit into legal definitions of negligence or implied warranty. Contracts may limit legal rights, provide for various conditions and terms, and may limit rights as to bringing suit. Various papers may have no legal effect.

Courts may allow recovery even if papers are lost or destroyed. Witnesses must have an objective opinion for admissibility. If there is a chance the claimant will be countersued, then advice of an attorney needs to be considered. Even if a case is won, the award must be collectible and actually received from the other party. A claimant should not sue anyone unless there is a meritorious or valid claim. If a suit is filed frivolously, the other party may place a judgment against you for all of the other party’s attorney’s fees and court costs.

 

Craig Linn Ames has over 40 years legal experience. He holds degrees in biology & law. He is a certified Risk Manager having served as Director of Risk Management of a Fortune 50 international company. He is principal of the Stacknik & Ames Law Firm with offices in Jacksonville & Tampa. www.craigthelawyer.com

 

 


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