One of the most common types of small claims lawsuits we assist with are car accident lawsuits. Most of the time these lawsuits involve getting money for:
fixing your car after a car accident,
the reduced value of your car after a car accident,
minor injuries you had (chiropractor, medical bills, etc.),
the deductible you had to pay your insurance.
In this article, we explore suing in small claims after a car accident:
How much does it cost to sue in a California small claims court
How much time will it take to sue in a California small claims court
How much can you sue for?
Why you may not be able to hire a lawyer
How to prepare for small claims court
What a small claims hearing is like
Cost of suing in small claims after a car accident
Alright, so how much is it going to cost to sue the person who hit your car in small claims?
Cost to file the lawsuit $30- $75 (free if you receive California government benefits like Medi-cal, SSI, food stamps)
Cost to serve the person you sue $0- $75 (free if you receive California government benefits like Medi-cal, SSI, food stamps)
How much time does suing in small claims take?
Your small claims hearing will be scheduled 30- 75 days after you file the lawsuit.
How much can you sue for?
You can sue for a maximum of $10,000 in California small claims.
Why you may not be able to hire a lawyer for your car accident lawsuit
Maybe you have already called a few lawyers asking if they will take a look at your case after a car accident but none are returning your calls or requests. There may be several reasons why a lawyer may not be able to help you with your car accident lawsuit but the most likely is that the amount that your lawsuit is worth isn't enough to justify hiring an attorney.
You don't have a severe injury.
The lawyer knows your lawsuit is worth less than $10,000 which means it is a small claims lawsuit and a lawyer cannot represent you at the small claims hearing.
The damages to your car are not costly enough.
It is too late to file your lawsuit.
If you have questions for a lawyer before going to small claims, you may be able to find a lawyer that charges on an hourly basis.
When to contact a lawyer after a car accident?
We strongly suggest that when you have been injured after a car accident to reach out to a lawyer to review your case. Most car accident lawyers take cases on a "contingency." This means that they only get paid if you win your lawsuit.
Most car accident lawyers also provide free consultations. A car accident attorney will review your medical records and injury and make a determination on how much your injury is worth. Here are some examples of when to reach out to a lawyer:
You were in a car accident and were hurt so badly that you were knocked unconscious.
You have really bad back pain after the car accident.
You broke a bone.
A car accident lawyer will sometimes let you know exactly why they won't take your case and they may even point you in the direction of suing in small claims!
How to prepare your car accident lawsuit for small claims court
Who to sue?
The driver of the car and the car owner (if they are two different people) (not their insurance company!). We have had clients tell us, "but I feel bad for the driver" or "after all it is their insurance company who will pay" this doesn't matter. The insurance company wasn't driving the car and didn't cause the accident.
Establishing who is at fault
It is important to prove that the other driver was at fault.
If you don't prove the person you sued caused the car accident, why should they have to pay? In other words, if you caused the car accident, why should someone else pay for you to fix your car?
Examples of how to prove this:
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 what occurred.
Many times, the driver of the car simply admits fault at the hearing. They are intimidated since they know that it is illegal to lie to the judge or they were waiting for their insurance to pay you.
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.
Establishing how much money you are owed
The judge will want to know how much you are suing for and why.
Here are some examples:
How much does it cost to fix your car?
How much was your car worth at the time of the accident? How much is your car worth now?
How much did the value of your car decrease as a result of the car accident?
Additional evidence that may be important to bring with you to the hearing
Your car registration to show you own the car that was damaged
Pictures of the accident area
Pictures of your car
Rental car charges
What is a small claims hearing like?
Lawyers are not allowed to represent you or the driver of the car at the small claims hearing.
The California legislature made this rule to even the playing field between you and the driver so that the driver's insurance could not pay a lawyer to represent the driver. So what does this mean for you? You have to prepare to tell the judge why you should win!
The Hearing Day
On the hearing day, you want to give yourself plenty of time to arrive at the courthouse, go through security, and find the courtroom. You don't want to be late! If you are late, the judge may close your lawsuit.
Once you are in the courtroom
Once the courtroom is opened, the court clerk, sheriff, and judge will go through what to expect. You will be sitting in a room with other people who have filed small claims cases. You will get to watch the cases scheduled before your case.
If both you and the driver/registered owner of the car show up:
Right before the hearing, the judge will ask you and the person you sued to show each other your evidence.
Once it is your turn to speak to the judge, the judge will ask you why you are suing.
Then the judge will ask the driver/owner of the car for their side of the story.
The hearing will last around 15 minutes.
The judge will ask you to show them the evidence you brought with you. Sometimes the judge will keep the evidence. Otherwise, you will get the evidence right back.
The judge may tell you if you won or lost right away. Most of the time won't tell you right away but rather mail you their decision.
If you show up but the driver/registered owner does not show up:
You still have to prove to the judge why you should win (you don't automatically win).
If you don't show up to the hearing:
The judge will close the lawsuit.
We are here to help you prepare for your small claims lawsuit after a car accident! We will help you prepare the lawsuit, file the lawsuit, and prepare for the hearing.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila is an attorney, consumer advocate, and certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.