Thinking of suing someone who hit your car in small claims? Here are 5 tips on how to sue someone who hit your car damage in small claims.
Here is a quick summary:
- Make sure you sue the right person or business.
- Make sure you serve the person you sued correctly.
- Get estimates on how much it will cost to fix or replace your car.
- Prepare your evidence.
- Prepare for the hearing.
1. Make sure you sue the right person.
If you list the wrong name for the person who hit your car on the small claims lawsuit, you may encounter problems serving the lawsuit and enforcing the small claims judgment.
How to figure out the right person to sue? Start with who caused the property damage, the person driving the car.
Driver & Registered Owner.
If you the person who was driving your car is different than the registered owner, make sure to also sue the registered owner of the car as their insurance may be responsible.
- You don't need to know who the driver's insurance company is. While their insurance company may ultimately be the one to pay for the damages to your car, you are not required to list the insurance company on the lawsuit.
- It is the driver/registered owner's responsibility to notify their insurance company. We find that may times, the driver/registered owner avoided paying for the car damages until they were sued small claims. Once sued, they are very likely going to reach out to their insurance company to let them know they have been sued in small claims for the cost to fix your car.
- What happens if I decide to sue the insurance company anyway? If you do decide to include the insurance company as a party to the lawsuit, you will have to serve them. The more people or business you have to serve, the more your serving costs are. Once served, the insurance company will likely show up to the hearing to ask the judge to remove them from the lawsuit. If they didn't know about the car accident, the insurance company will reach out to their client notifying them of the lawsuit. They may also settle with you before the hearing date.
- If you were in a car accident with a stranger, make sure you look for their full legal name on their car insurance policy, vehicle registration, or driver's license.
- If there was a police report filed after the car accident, make sure to look other drivers full legal name on the police report.
- If your neighbor hit your car while backing out of their driveway, make sure you find your neighbors full legal name. If your neighbor owns their house, you can call the county tax assessors office. If you provide the county tax assessor with your neighbors address, they will be able to tell give you the full legal name of the person who owns the house.
- If a company employee hit your car while driving a company vehicle, make sure you take pictures of the company car so you can find the company name.
- If a a valet hit your car while parking it, you may want to consider suing both the employee as an individual and the business they work for.
If you are suing a business, here are some tips for finding the correct legal entity name for the business:
- Individual v. Business Entity. The first is to determine whether the business is registered as a business entity or whether it is an individual as the owner of the business. If you determine that the business is an individual, you will want to list the individual's exact name on the small claims lawsuit.
- Fictitious business names. It is very common for an individual to do business using a business name. For example, ABC Valet may actually be John Smith doing business as ABC Valet. This is called a fictitious business name.
- Business license search. Each business that has a store front, has to have a business license. To find the business license information, you can call the city where the business is located in to search for their business license information. They will be able to tell you who registered the business license. Make sure you write down any public information they can provide you with.
- Secretary of State's website. Once you determine whether the business is a corporation or LLC, make sure to then run a search on the California Secretary of State's website to find the registered agent for the business (this is the person that will be served the lawsuit papers later on).
2. Make sure you serve the person you are suing correctly
Once you have filed your lawsuit for the damage to your car, you will need to serve the lawsuit on the person or the business responsible for the car accident. Serving is the act of notifying a person or business that they have been sued. There are very specific rules for serving your lawsuit. Here are a few:
- You cannot serve your own lawsuit. You have to have an adult not involved in the lawsuit serve your lawsuit.
- You can hire a process server to serve your lawsuit. A process server is someone licensed to serve lawsuit documents.
- Don't wait until the last minute to serve. The serving deadline varies if the driver/registered owner is located inside the county you are suing in. You do want to make sure you serve your lawsuit at least 30 days before your hearing. Otherwise, the person you sued will tell the judge that they did not have enough time to prepare for the hearing.
3. Get estimates on how much it will cost to fix or replace your car.
Getting estimates on how much it will cost to fix or replace the damage to your car will help the judge establish how much you should win.
Here are some tips:
- You will want to get an estimate on how much it will cost to fix your car. For example, you can take your car to a mechanic for an estimate.
- If you have to completely replace your car, you can check its value on Kelley Blue Book.
- You may also want to consider including the value of the car now that it has been in an accident, this is known as the "the diminished value." Everyone knows that a car that has been in a car accident is worth less than a car that has not been in a car accident.
- You can go to a dealership and ask them to calculate the "trade in" value of your car.
- Make sure you have your year, make, and model available to help determine how much your car was worth before the accident and how much your car is worth now.
4. Prepare your evidence.
In preparing for your small claims hearing, keep in mind the following items:
- You need to be able to prove to the judge that the other driver was at fault for the car accident.
- If the judge agrees with you that the other driver was at fault, the next step is for the judge to determine how much should you win.
How to prove that someone was at fault for a car accident? Here are some examples:
- At the hearing, the judge will ask you what occurred. For example, "your honor the person I am suing made an illegal turn, didn't put on their blinker, ran a red light." Basically, the driver did something they weren't supposed to do. Your description of what happened tends to be one of the main pieces of evidence. Make sure you are prepared to describe to the judge exactly how you remember the car accident happened. It is very rare for the person you sued to lie in court about how a car accident happened, but if you have any evidence, bring it just in case!
- Many times, the driver of the car simply admits fault at the hearing. At the hearing, the court court will have you and the other party "swear under penalty of perjury to tell the truth." If they don't tell the truth and the judge finds out about it, they will get penalized by the court. They also know their insurance company will likely pay you for the damages to your car so they don't have a reason to lie.
- Did you obtain a police report after the car accident? Make sure you bring it with you to the hearing.
- Witnesses. Was someone in the car with you? Bring them with you to the hearing.
- Pictures of the accident or a print out of where you were driving at the time of the accident.
- Do you have text messages, emails, or letters with the other person admitting they are at fault for the car accident?
How much should you win? This is also known as "how much damages should you be awarded" which simply means, how much money does the judge think you are owed. Judge's like to see concrete numbers of how much you are owed. Make sure to review tip #3 on estimates. Here are some examples:
- Pictures or videos of the damage to your car. Make sure to bring pictures or videos to the hearing of your car before it was damaged and after it was damaged.
- Estimates. Refer to tip #3 on estimates. Make sure to bring any documents that determine how much it will cost to fix or replace your car.
5. Prepare for the hearing.
It is good to take a few minutes to prepare what you will say at the hearing. In small claims, judge's know this is likely your first time suing or even stepping into a courthouse so don't be nervous!
Here is an outline you can use:
- Try to start off by telling the judge a big picture summary in two sentences or less. For example: "Your honor, I am suing the driver of the car because on January 1, 2021 they hit my car. It will cost $5,000 to fix the damages to my car."
- Then, go into more specific details. Make sure you don't go off on a tangent! If we continue with the previous example, "Your honor, if you turn to page 5 of my evidence, you will see pictures of my car before the car accident. If you turn to page 6, you will see a picture of my car after the car accident."
- The judge will ask you questions as you tell your side of the story. Make sure you answer the judge's question first and then add any additional facts if necessary!
- Be prepared to address anything the person you sued may bring up.
- But most importantly, DO NOT INTERRUPT! You do not want to interrupt the judge or the person you sued. Once they are done speaking, ask "Your honor, may I add something?"
Don't be nervous, be prepared.
People Clerk can help you with your California small claims lawsuit for property damage.