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Are you looking to sue someone for property damage in a California small claims court?
In this article, learn about:
Common types of small claims lawsuits over property damage
What to do before suing someone for property damage in small claims
The maximum amount you can sue someone for property damage in small claims court
How much it costs to sue someone for property damage in small claims.
How to file a small claims lawsuit against someone over property damage
What to expect during a small claims hearing.
Mediation as an option for resolving your dispute.
Fun fact, lawyers are not allowed to represent you or the other party in small claims! This is to even the playing field so that each party has an equal chance of obtaining justice.
Looking for help with filing, serving, and preparing for the small claims hearing over property damage?
Common types of property damage small claims lawsuits
We often receive the question, can I sue someone for property damage in California small claims? The answer is yes as long as the dispute is for $10,000 or less (more on this below). Disputes over property damage are very common in small claims court. Here are some examples of small claims lawsuits:
Someone hit your car causing damage to it (we have a whole article on property damage after a car accident).
Your neighbor's pipe burst and caused damage to your home. You can sue in small claims court if they refuse to pay for the damages to your home. Check out our neighbor disputes article.
Your neighbor's dog damaged your fence. You can sue in small claims court for the cost of a new fence or the cost to fix your fence.
Your neighbor's tree damaged your property. You can sue in small claims court for the cost of fixing or replacing your damaged property. For example, if your neighbor's tree had a branch fall on your car.
Your roommate or landlord threw out your furniture. Check out our roommate disputes article.
A mechanic damaged your car after you took it in for repairs. Check out our mechanic disputes article.
What to do before suing over property damage in small claims
Reach Out to the Person Who Caused the Damage
The first thing to do when a problem arises is to communicate with the person who caused the damage. If you have an ongoing relationship with them this is very easy to do (and worthwhile to do since your relationship is at stake).
You want to make sure they understand that they owe you money to fix your property or buy new property since they caused the damage. Most of the time they will agree to pay you all or most of what you are owed. Have them try to step in your shoes so they understand how you feel as this may help them understand why you would like to be paid for the damages they have caused. Explain to them that you have obtained estimates to fix the damage so they know you are not coming up with an arbitrary number. If they don't pay you, then it might be time to escalate the situation.
Save All Evidence
You want to make sure to save all evidence related to the property damage. For example, you want to make sure to save:
Any contracts, receipts, invoices.
Written conversations you have had with the person who caused the damage (text messages, emails, etc).
Pictures of the damage caused.
Any proof you have of how much they owe you and that you have notified them of the damage.
If they have previously agreed to pay you, include any evidence of when they were supposed to pay you and any partial payments they have made.
Estimates of how much it will cost to replace or fix the damaged property.
Send a Demand Letter
A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests. For example, you could write to the person who caused the damage to request reimbursement to fix the damage to your property and why you think they caused the damage to your property.
If you eventually decide to sue in California small claims court, you are required to first request your money or property back before you can file the lawsuit. While you can request your money or property back orally, it is suggested you do so in writing in the form of a demand letter.
It is very common to request reimbursement via text message or by phone but you may have a higher chance of receiving payment if you do it in the form of a letter. Letters are oftentimes taken more seriously than demands for payment via text message or phone.
What to include in the demand letter?
Unsure of what to include in your demand letter to someone who caused property damage? Here are a few suggestions:
How much money you are owed (you can attach any estimates you have received to the letter).
Why you are owed money.
Your contact information.
Where to send payment.
Option to pay you using a payment plan.
Option to mediate your dispute (there are many organizations in California that provide free or low-cost mediation and most courts also have free mediation available but many times you have to file a lawsuit in order to obtain access). More on mediation below.
Give them a few days to respond (usually about 7 to 14 days).
Let them know that if they don't respond, you intend to sue because you didn't feel like they left you with an alternative.
The maximum amount you can sue someone for property damage in small claims court
If someone owes you $10,000 or less for damage to property such as a car after a car accident, then you can sue in a California small claims court. If you are owed more than $10,000, you can still sue in small claims, but you agree to waive any additional amount you are owed.
Here is an example: It is going to cost $11,000 to fix your car after a car accident. You would like to sue the person who hit you in small claims but the limit is $10,000. You agree to sue for $10,000 only.
Why would someone agree to waive any amount over $10,000 that they are owed:
Suing in regular court is more expensive, time-consuming, and complicated.
You cannot hire an attorney to represent you in small claims court making it cheaper.
Hearings in small claims court are scheduled 30-75 days after the lawsuit is filed.
How much it costs to sue someone in small claims.
It costs between $30-$75 to file a small claims lawsuit over property damage.
Once the lawsuit is filed, the person who caused the damage has to be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against them. This is called serving. You can serve for free if you have a friend or family member deliver the lawsuit to them or you can pay between $40-$75 to have the lawsuit professionally served.
If you are on California public benefits like Medi-cal, Food Stamps, SSI, you pay $0 in court fees and serving costs.
How to file a small claims lawsuit against someone who damaged your property
Step 1: Complete "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court" (Form SC-100)
It is also known as the "complaint" or "claim."
When thinking about who to sue:
Make sure you sue the person who caused the damage to your property.
If you are suing over a car accident, make sure you sue the driver and the registered owner of the car.
Step 2: File "Plaintiff's Claim and Order to Go to Small Claims Court"
Each California Small Claims Court has a different procedure for filing. You have to check with your local small claims court whether they allow filing in-person, by mail, online, or by fax. Or we can file your case for you!
Step 3: Serve the person you are suing
Once you file your California small claims court lawsuit, the next step is to notify the person you have sued that they have been sued. This is called "service of process" (also known as "service"). You must serve the person you sued at least 15-20 days before the small claims court hearing (sometimes you are required to serve at least 30 days before the hearing). There are several ways you can serve the person you have sued including by having a friend serve, hiring a process server, or hiring the sheriff. You cannot serve your own lawsuit. We can help you with serving the small claims lawsuit.
The Small Claims Court Hearing
Once you file your small claims lawsuit, you will get a hearing date scheduled anywhere between 30-70 days later. During this time, the person who caused the property damage (or their insurance company) may call you to try and settle the lawsuit. If you come to an agreement, you can close your small claims lawsuit.
To prepare for your small claims court hearing:
Research the law. If you are unsure about what laws relate to your lawsuit, consult an attorney or conduct your own research about the law (a quick Google search goes a long way). Remember, you don't need to necessarily cite a specific law (unless you are basing your legal theories on a very unknown subject area), you just need to be able to prove that you are "right" and the person who damaged your property is "wrong." Sometimes this can be as simple as proving that your they caused damage to property that belongs to you.
Prepare your evidence. Pictures, receipts, etc. You want to have your evidence organized with titles, dates, and why that piece of evidence is important. All your evidence should be geared towards showing the judge why you should win. Remember, it is not good to show up to court without any documents or receipts. The judge wants to be able to base their decision on the evidence you bring to court showing exactly how much you are owed and why you are owed money. If you are suing over damage to your car after a car accident, make sure to bring proof of ownership of the car (car registration or vehicle title) as the judge will sometimes like to see proof of ownership.
Prepare what to say. During the hearing, the judge will ask you why you are suing your the person who caused the damage to you property and how you calculated the amount you are owed. You want to make sure you start with a broad statement like this: "Your honor, I am suing my neighbor in small claims court today because they damaged my fence and it will cost me $10,000 to fix it." Then go into the details. Make sure to bring estimates of how much it will cost to fix or replace your damaged property.
Get your receipts for costs ready. For example, your filing fees and any process server costs. Make sure to let the judge know that you would like to be reimbursed for these costs.
Print enough copies of all your evidence. You will need at least three copies of your evidence (one for you, one for the judge, one for the person you sued).
Are attorneys allowed in small claims court?
Attorneys are not allowed to represent you or the other person at the initial hearing. If the person you sued loses the small claims lawsuit and appeals (meaning they lost and want the judge to decide again) then attorneys are allowed to represent the parties at the appeal hearing.
Mediation as an option of resolving your dispute
What is mediation?
Mediation is a meeting between you, the person you sued, and a neutral 3rd party called the mediator. A mediator is not going to decide who should win but rather help you come to a mutually satisfactory agreement. Mediation tends to be very successful between people that a longstanding relationship and a relationship that will likely continue for the foreseeable future. If you reach an agreement during mediation, you will be able to close your lawsuit.
How can I try to mediate the dispute with the person that damaged my property?
In California, there are many organizations that provide free or low-cost mediation. Run a google search for "mediation near me" and you will find one of the many organizations providing mediation. Many times they are run by volunteer mediators.
Many California small claims courts also have free mediation available. Each county runs their small claims mediation a bit differently so reach out to us for more information on your court. You can either obtain free mediation on your hearing date or you may be able to request mediation before your hearing date.
Chief Legal Architect & Co-Founder @ People Clerk. Camila holds a juris doctor degree and is a certified mediator. Her passion is breaking down complicated legal processes so that people without an attorney can get justice.