Thinking of suing someone for property damage in small claims? Here are 5 tips on how to sue someone for property 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 the property damage.
- 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 caused the property damage 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.
Here are some examples:
- If your neighbor caused the property damage, 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 car wash employee caused the property damage, you may want to consider suing both the employee as an individual and the business they work for.
- If a gate at an HOA caused your property damage, you will want to sue the HOA.
- If your landlord threw out your property, you will want to sue your landlord as listed on your lease or rental agreement and anyone else who may be responsible for your property damage.
- If an auto repair shop damaged your car, you will want to find out the "legal entity name" for the auto repair shop.
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 Car Wash may actually be John Smith doing business as ABC Car Wash. 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.
- License Search. If the business is an auto repair shop, contractor, or other type of business that has to have a business license to do business, you can search for the license information. For example, if you are suing a mechanic, you can search the Department of Consumer Affairs database for the auto repair shop's license. If the search is successful, the license information will come up and let you know whether the auto repair shop is licensed as an individual, corporation, or LLC.
- 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 them correctly
Once you have filed your lawsuit for property damage, you will need to serve the lawsuit on the person or the business responsible for the damage to your property. 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.
- Do not wait until the last minute to serve. The serving deadline varies if the person who caused the property damage 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 the property damage.
Getting estimates on how much it will cost to fix or replace the property damage will help the judge establish how much you should win.
Here are some examples:
- If your neighbor damaged your fence, make sure you get an estimate on how much it will cost to fix your fence.
- If someone hit your car, 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 or 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).
- If your landlord threw out your furniture, you will want to create an estimate of how much your furniture was worth when you bought it, how old your furniture is, and how much someone would have bough your furniture for had your landlord not thrown it away. You can also see how much it will cost to buy new furniture, but keep in mind that the judge will discount how old your furniture was at the time your landlord threw it away.
4. Prepare your evidence.
In preparing for your small claims hearing over property damage, keep in mind the following items:
- You need to be able to prove to the judge that the person you are suing caused the damage to your property.
- If the judge agrees with you that the person you sued caused the damage to your property, how much should you win?
How to prove that someone damaged your property? Here are some examples:
- In many situations it is very obvious that the person you are suing damaged your property. For example, you let someone borrow your car and they crashed it. This will be proven by your statement (under penalty of perjury meaning that if you lie, you can get in trouble with the court) and any supporting evidence. It is very rare for the person you sued to go to court and deny that they caused damage to your property. Make sure to bring any additional evidence just in case!
- Do you have pictures or videos of the person damaging your property? It is very rare you will have video footage of the very moment that someone damages your property, but if you do, bring it with you!
- Evidence that the property was in the person you suing's control. For example, do you have a text message of you telling your friend that they could borrow your car? If they deny damaging your car, you could show the judge a text message that on that date, you had lent your car to your friend.
- Do you have text messages, emails, or letters regarding the damaged property. For example, texts to your neighbor asking them to fix the property.
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 property damage. Make sure to bring pictures or videos to the hearing of the property 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 damaged property. This may be in the form of screenshots from a website like eBay, Amazon, or Kelley Blue Book. If you have to hire someone to repair the property, the evidence can be in the form of an estimate or an invoice.
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 my neighbor because his tree fell on my car on January 1, 2021. 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 and the tree before the damage. If you turn to page 6, you will see a picture of the tree on my car."
- 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.