How much can you sue for in Small Claims (California)

May 9, 2021
How much can you sue for in Small Claims (California)
People Clerk helps you with your small claims court lawsuit.

Having a hard time figuring out how much to sue for in small claims? In this article, we cover how to calculate how much to sue for in small claims. In general, you can sue for a maximum of $10,000 in California small claims if you are an individual or sole proprietor. If you are suing on behalf of a corporation or LLC, you can sue for a maximum of $5,000.

Remember, the ultimate decision maker of how much you are owed is the judge.

Here is what you will learn in this article:

  • How to calculate how much you are owed.
  • Can you add legal fees to your lawsuit?
  • Can you add court fees to your lawsuit?
  • Can you add serving costs to your lawsuit?
  • Can I sue for pain and suffering?
  • Can I add time spent working on the small claims lawsuit?

How to calculate how much you are owed


As your prepare your California small claims lawsuit, you need to determine how much to sue for and how you calculated the amount your are suing for. You will be asked the following questions on the SC-100 "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" page 2:

  • Why does the defendant (the person you are suing) owe the plaintiff (you) money?
  • The plaintiff (you) claims the defendant (the person you are suing) owes $______.
  • How did you (the plaintiff) calculate the money owed to you? (Do not include court costs or fees for service.)

Use receipts

The most obvious way to calculate how much you are owed by the person you are suing is to look for your receipts, invoices, bank account, etc. for the amount of money you have lost.

Here are some examples:

  • You bought an item, but never received it. How much did you pay for the item?
  • You hired a contractor to fix your roof, but they never showed up to fix it. How much did you pay the contractor to fix your roof?
  • Someone hit your car and you had to pay money to fix your car. How much money did you pay to fix your car?
  • You paid a mechanic to fix your engine but the mechanic damaged your car's paint job while fixing the engine. How much will it cost another mechanic to fix the car's paint job?
  • You gave your landlord a $3,000 security deposit, but your landlord did not return the security deposit. How much was the security deposit (normally found on your lease)?
  • Your neighbor damaged your fence and it will cost money to fix or buy a new fence. How much will the new fence cost?
  • You lent a friend money but they haven't paid you back. You have a bank transfer of $1,000 to your friend.
  • Your ex boyfriend took your car. How much is your car worth?

Judge's like to see proof of how you are calculating your numbers. Make sure you bring to the hearing all evidence that shows exactly how you calculated what you are owed. Providing arbitrary numbers is extremely risky if you cannot explain how you calculated them.

Remember, we can help you prepare your evidence for the hearing.

Punitive damages

In general, small claims isn't meant for you to come out winning more than what you are owed. The exception to this rule is when there is a law that provides you can sue for more money that what you paid as a punishment to the person you are suing. This is sometimes referred to as "punitive damages."

Some laws require you directly bring it up in your lawsuit that you are requesting punitive damages, other times, even if you don't know about a law that gives you punitive damages, the judge can add punitive damages on their own even if they don't mention it in their lawsuit.

Here are some examples:

  • Security Deposits. You can sue for 2x the amount of your security deposit if your landlord did not return your security deposit in "bad faith." Learn more.
  • Towing. If your car is towed and the towing company did not provide proper notice to local law enforcement, you may be able to sue for three times the amount of the towing and storage charges. Learn more here.
  • Airline. If you are bumped off a flight because the airline overbooked it, you may be entitled to additional money depending on the circumstances (this isn't really punitive damages, but an amount set by law). Learn more here.

In order to prove that you are owed this additional amount of money, you need to make sure your evidence is in order. There is usually a requirement of showing that the person you are suing acted in a very bad way and the best way to show this is through evidence you have collected.

You can find more of these laws by running a google search or consulting an attorney.

When in doubt, sue for your best estimate

Yes, it can be hard to figure out exactly how much you are owed. Ultimately, it is up to the judge to decide as they are the ultimate decision maker. Remember, if you are an individual or sole proprietor the maximum you can sue for is $10,000 in California small claims. If you are suing on behalf of a corporation or LLC, you can sue for a maximum of $5,000.

You don't want to regret after the hearing not asking for the full amount you think you are owed because "you weren't 100% sure." When in doubt, remember the maximum amounts you can sue for and try to make a reasonable calculation based on what you are owed.

The judge DOES NOT expect you to:

  • Be an attorney or have the same level of knowledge as an attorney.
  • Pay lots of money to an attorney to calculate the amount you are owed for you.
  • Conduct hours of extensive research to try and figure out the amount you are owed.

The judge DOES expect you to:

  • Base your numbers on how much you have lost.
  • Have your receipts, invoices, and any evidence in order.
  • Be able to tell them in your own words how much you are suing for and how you calculated that amount.

Here are some common mistakes people make when establishing how much to sue for in small claims:

  • Not asking for the full amount you are owed. For example, you only sue for $6,000 but you are actually owed $10,000. The judge may not give you more because you did not put the person you are suing on notice that they may stand to lose $10,000 (you only notified them that they could lose up to $6,000). That said, some judge's will give you more even if you sued for less.
  • Using arbitrary numbers in your calculations. For example, the judge asks you why you are suing for $10,000 and you say "I don't know the person I am suing is a bad person and they should pay the maximum." Here is a better way: "I am suing for $10,000 because that is the amount I paid to fix my car after the person I am suing hit my car."
  • Evidence is a mess. You show up to the hearing with your receipts thrown in your purse or backpack and expect the judge to add them up for you. Instead, you can use our evidence uploader and organize your receipts with dates, titles, and amounts.
Whatever you decide, make sure you have your evidence organized!

Common questions of how much to sue for:

  • Can you add attorney fees to your lawsuit? It depends on your contract, does your contract say you can sue for attorney fees. Make sure you bring a copy of your contract to the hearing. There are also laws that allow you to recover attorney fees. When in doubt, ask the judge if you can recover for the amount of money you paid an attorney.
  • Can you add court fees to your lawsuit? The SC-100 under number 3(c) states NOT to include court costs. You can let the judge know you would like to be reimbursed and the judge will decide at the hearing.
  • Can you add serving costs to your lawsuit? The SC-100 under number 3(c) states NOT to include fees for serving the other party. You can let the judge know you would like to be reimbursed and the judge will decide at the hearing.
  • Can I sue for pain and suffering? You can sue for whatever you want to sue for, it is up to the judge to decide whether you can win for pain and suffering. You need to make sure you have enough evidence to prove this to the judge.
  • Can I add time spent working on the small claims lawsuit? You can sue for whatever you want to sue for, it is up to the judge to decide whether you can win for time spent working on the small claims lawsuit. You need to make sure you have enough evidence to prove this to the judge.
  • How can I be more sure of the amount I am suing for? Conduct a google search or hire an attorney to help you figure this out. Remember it is all a cost v. benefit analysis. The judge knows you are not a lawyer and does not expect you to be a lawyer. They know you are not an expert at figuring out how much you are owed but they do want you to bring all your evidence to the hearing so that they can determine how much you are owed.
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