No, since small claims court is a civil court and not a criminal court, you won’t get an arrest warrant for not going to a small court. Instead, the Plaintiff can ask for a default judgment against you. However, for the Judge to grant the default judgment, the Plaintiff is still expected to prove their case and also prove to the Judge that there is a reasonable probability that you were actually served with the Notice of Claim.

Also, if you later learn about the default judgment and disagree with it, you can file a Motion to Vacate Default Judgment. This usually must be filed within one (1) year from the date the default judgment was entered. Note that if the Motion is properly filed, the Judge may schedule a court date to consider and hear evidence about the Motion. Or the Judge may rule on the Motion without a hearing.

Have it in mind that the party asking the Judge to vacate or cancel the default judgment is expected to show “good cause” meaning a very good reason for vacating the default judgment. If the Judge does vacate the judgment, the case will be scheduled for a new trial on the original claims of the parties just as if the default judgment never happened.

Howbeit, if more than one (1) year has passed, you may still file an action to vacate the default judgment but you are expected to do so only by strictly following Trial Rule of Small Court Rules of Trial Procedure. This can be a complicated procedure for which it would be best to speak with a lawyer.

Things to Do If You Get Sued in a Small Claims Court

Indeed getting served with legal papers isn’t fun. However, you don’t have to panic if you find yourself at the wrong end of a lawsuit in small claims court—you have options. Here are simple steps to consider:

  1. Read the Small Claims Paperwork

Note that it is quite easy to set aside the complaint, but this isn’t a problem you’ll want to ignore. Read through each page thoroughly and find out:

  • The duration you have to respond to the action
  • When you’re expected to go to court, and
  • Who is suing you and why.

Howbeit, if you have a hard time determining any of these things, it is advisable you seek the expertise of an attorney or make an appointment at your small claims court’s self-help centre as soon as possible.

  1. Check for a Procedural Problem

In some cases, the plaintiff—the person suing you—may not have followed up on all of the procedural legal rules properly. Do not be tempted to simply not show up in court just because you think there’s a procedural defect in the plaintiff’s case.

Have it in mind that a judge can easily overlook even a primary technical problem and, as a result, enter a judgment against you by default. If this happens, you will have to go to the trouble of requesting that the judgment be set aside (vacated). Nonetheless, here are a few problems to look out for:

  • Were you served properly? The plaintiff must be sure that you receive the paperwork with sufficient time to respond. Maybe the plaintiff’s papers were left with a neighbour or were served late, so you didn’t have the correct number of days in which to respond to the plaintiff’s complaint. Find out about serving court papers.
  • Did the plaintiff file in the right court? The plaintiff is expected to comply with the venue (location) and jurisdiction (the court’s authority to hear a case) requirements when choosing the court.
  • Talk with the clerk immediately to explain the problem with the way the plaintiff delivered the court papers or with the court location and ask that the case be delayed (continued) to a date that is convenient for you or transferred to the correct court. If the court clerk can’t help you, then seek legal assistance.

Additionally, if you don’t live or do business in a state where you are sued, a court normally doesn’t have power (jurisdiction) to enter a valid judgment against you, unless court papers are served on you while you happen to be in that state. Have it in mind that exceptions exist for people who live out of state but own land in the state where the lawsuit was filed or got into a traffic accident in that state.

But if you are an out-of-state resident and receive small claims papers via the mail, it is imperative you promptly write a letter to the court explaining that you do not believe you are subject to the court’s jurisdiction. Do not forget to stay in touch with the court clerk until you are sure the case has been dismissed.

  1. Negotiate a Settlement

If after checking the above you realize that the plaintiff has some right on his side, but you think you are being sued for too much, contact the plaintiff and try to work out a settlement. Note that one good way to go about this is to call, write, or email the plaintiff and make an offer. How much to offer depends on the strength of your defence and whether you think the plaintiff’s estimate is reasonable or substantially inflated.

If the plaintiff has a concrete legal position (that is, you probably are legally responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries or damages) and is asking the court for a reasonable amount, you might begin by making an initial offer to pay about half of the plaintiffs demand.

Even with a strong case, the plaintiff may be motivated to accept your lowball offer, if for no other reason than to save the time it takes to prepare for and appear in court. Most times, your offer will set in motion a little dance of offer and counteroffer, with an eventual compromise of somewhere between 65% and 80% of the plaintiff’s original request. If the plaintiff is asking for way too much, or you are not sure that a judge would rule in the plaintiff’s favour, you’ll want to offer less.

  1. Suggest Mediation If You Want to Avoid Conflict

Howbeit, if negotiation fails to solve the problem, mediation is more or less always beneficial to the defendant, because the process tends to encourage a compromise settlement for a lower amount than the plaintiffs demand. Relatives in addition, mediation gives the defendant the opportunity to raise issues that are not officially part of the plaintiff’s lawsuit.

For example, in a dispute between neighbours, businesspeople, or relatives, it’s always critical to discuss and settle emotional concerns in addition to sorting out how much is owed. You should also consider asking the small claims court clerk for help with mediation. In some states, small claims courts require parties to try mediation before a judge hears the case.

In some other places, voluntary mediation is easily accessible, either right in the courthouse or at a nearby community mediation project. Ask the small claims court clerk where mediation is available in your area. Then contact the mediation project and enlist their help in bringing the plaintiff to the table.

  1. Don’t Show Up (“Default”)

If you have no valid defense on the merits of the case; maybe you borrowed money under the terms of a written contract and haven’t paid it back. Or if you know you’ll lose, you might conclude that it makes little sense to fight back in court.

However, just like it was stated above, your decision not to show up will almost surely result in a default judgment against you. The judgment will more or less be for the dollar amount demanded by the plaintiff, plus the amount of his filing fee and any reasonable costs of serving the papers on you.

Conclusion

Note that if you fail to show up for the trial, the Plaintiff can ask for a default judgment against you. However, in several states, if you do not dispute the plaintiff’s claim, but cannot afford to pay it all at once, the law allows you to request the right to make payments in installments. After checking with the small claims clerk to see that installment payments are an option in your state, your best bet might be to show up in court and explain your financial situation to the judge.

Joy Nwokoro
Latest posts by Joy Nwokoro (see all)