*This is for information purposes only. Should you need legal advice, you should contact an attorney even if you intend to handle your own claims.
What is Small Claims Court
Small Claims Court is a division of City Court of Houma. You may sue to resolve minor civil disputes or to collect small sums of money which are owed you. The amount of money for which you may sue in Small Claims Court is currently limited by law to $5,000.00.
The Small Claims Court uses certified mail to serve papers on individuals outside of Terrebonne Parish. The Houma City Marshal's Office serves papers on individuals within Terrebonne Parish. If it is necessary to subpoena witnesses for any proceeding, there will be an additional fee for this service. If judgment is rendered in favor of the plaintiff, the judge may rule that the defendant must reimburse the plaintiff for court costs. The filing fee can be waived for an indigent party.
After judgement is rendered, there will be additional fees for judment debtor rules, garnishments, and seizures. The plaintiff must advance the fees, but the defendant will be responsible for reimbursing the plaintiff for them.
Using Small Claims Court is one of your rights as a citizen. Individuals may bring suit on their own without having to hire a lawyer. In Small Claims Court, the technical rules of evidence are relaxed, and relevant evidence, including hearsay, is admissible provided the Judge is satisfied of its reliability, and he has enough competent evidence on which to base his judgment. A person who sues in Small Claims Court waives the right to a jury trial, and the judgment of the court may not be appealed by either party..
Who May Sue in Small Claims Court?
Any individual acting in his own behalf who is 18 years of age or older may sue in Small Claims Court; a minor may sue only through a parent or guardian. The person who files suit is called the PLAINTIFF.
The procedure in Small Claims Court has been simplified to help you handle your own case. However, you still have to do the same things an attorney would do - you have to do all necessary investigations, obtain all necessary information, file the suit, and subpoena the necessary witnesses for trial.
Who May Be Sued?
You can use Small Claims Court if:
1. The person being sued lives in Terrebonne Parish.
2. The person being sued has a place of business in Terrebonne Parish and the claim arises out of the conduct of this business.
3. The claim arises out of an accident that occurred in Terrebonne Parish.
What Kinds of Suits May be Filed in Small Claims Court?
Suits which may properly be filed in Small Claims Court include; contractual disputes, actions for money damages based on injury caused by another person, actions for possession of personal property excluding real estate, and eviction proceedings. Common consumer complaints which can be resolved in Small Claims Court involve; repair problems, breach of warranty, defective products, unreturned deposits on apartments, undelivered goods, insurance claims, and damage to property by cleaners or movers.
In addition to the limitation based on the amount of money in dispute, the following cases may NOT be instituted in Small Claims Court; suits involving marriage, separation or divorce; a State agency or against a parish, municipality, or other political subdivision; or suits against a public official performing official duties. Disputes involving libel, slander, and actions seeking punitive damages are also outside the jurisdiction of Small Claims Court.
Where Do You File Suit?
To file a Small Claim, you must come to City Court of Houma, located at the corner of Main Street and Gabasse Street, (8046 Main St.), Houma, Louisiana.
How do You Begin a Suit in Small Claims Court?
On the claim form, you must give your full name and address and the legal name and address of the person or persons you are suing.
Smaill claims cases could be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to correctly identify the defendant. If you sue a business, you must name the entity that operates it as your defendant. This will usually be an individual or a corporation. For example, Al's Body Shop may be operated by Al Jones or AMS, Inc. The operator's name can sometimes be found on licenses or certificates posted in the place of business or by contacting city or parish authorities that issue occupational licenses. The name and address of the agent who must receive your suit against a corporation may be obtained from the Corporate Division of the Secretary of States office in Baton Rouge.
Identifying an individual may be more difficult. However, if the person you want to sue owns a car, obtain the license number and contact the Department of Motor Vehicles for the name of the vehicle registration. If you are not sure who is responsible, you may name more than one person.
Your statement of claim must contain the following information: the amount of money you are suing for; the correct name and address of the defendant or defendants; the reason why you believe the defendant owes you money (e.g., "Defendant negligently ran into my car on July 17 of this year, causing damage which he has refused to repair"); a demand that the judge award you the amount sued for plus court costs and judicial interest. Attach copies of any contract, leases, bills, receipts, cancelled checks, etc., that support or prove your claim. The filing fee is paid when you turn in this paperwork.
How Much Should You Sue For?
Sue for the sum of money that represents the damage caused to you. For example, if the washing machine you just bought for $350.00 does not work and the store refuses to repair or refund your money, sue for $350.00 plus court costs and judicial interest. The amount cannot be split; you must sue for the full amount all at once.
You may not sue for more than $5000.00 in Small Claims Court, but you may decide that even though you are owed more than $5000.00, it would save you money to forego the amount in excess of $5000.00 and sue for only $5000.00 in Smail Claims Court. This is your right and privilege.
If you receive a judgment in your favor, you can claim interest on the sum of money owed to you running from the date you originally filed suit until the money is actually paid. this is known as judicial interest and is fixed by law.
Court costs are usually, but not always, assessed against the losing party. However, if you file suit and then agree to an out-of-court settelement, you must still pay the court costs even though you dropped the suit, unless the terms of the agreement specifically require the defendant to pay those costs or unless you agreee to split the costs.
What Happens After You File Suit?
After you file suit, the Clerk of City Court will prepare a citation to be served on the defendant informing him that he is being sued and must appear in court if he wishes to defend himslef against your claim. The Clerk of City Court will send the citation and an answer form to the defendant through the services of the Houma City Marshal's Office. Once the defendant has received the citation, he has ten (10) calendar days (inclusive of holidays) in which to answer. You should contact the clerk to determine when the defendant was served. If the defendant has been served and has failed to file an answer after ten (10) days, you should contact the clerk for a date you can come to court for trial with your witnesses and evidence.
If the defendant has been served and has filed an answer, you will be notified of a trial date.
If You Are the Defendant:
It is the defendant's right to request the action be transferred from the Small Claims Division to the regular civil docket. the decision to transfer the case, which preserves the right to appeal, must be made quickly. You will have only ten (10) calendar days (inclusive of holidays) in which to anser the claim against you. There is a fee for this transfer.
The citation should inform the defendant of his right to request that the case be transferred and tell him what to do if he wishes to exercise his right. A written notice requesting a transfer of the case must be filed with the Clerk of City Court within the ten (10) calendar days allowed for the defendant's answer.
The plaintiff should understand when he files a small claims suit that the defendant has the right to request that the case be transferred. When the defendant's request is granted, the Clerk of City Court must notify the plaintiff of the transfer and the defendant becomes responsible for any additional court costs.
Transferring the case to the regular civil docket preserves bothy parties' right to appeal the judgment of the court. However, the appeal process can be lengthy and costly for both parties. If the case goes to the Court of Appeals, it may be necessary for both parties to retain counsel. Therefore, if the defendant feels he has a strong case, or if only a relatively small sum of money is at stake, it may be to his advantage to leave the case in Small Claims Court.
If you decide to fight the case in Small Claims Court, file your answer with the Clerk of City Court within the ten (10) day period provided or the plaintiff may receive a judgment against you. Your answer must be made in writing and contain every defense you intend to raise. The best idea is to answer every charge made by the plaintiff first, and then add any defense you think might be important. Be sure to mention any circumstances that might affect the judge's decision, especially if you are at fault (e.g. "The bicycle which I damaged was 12 years old, therefore I do not think it is fair for the plaintiff to insist that I buy him a brand new bike.") Be truthful and accurate in you answer. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff and you should present evidence to disprove what the plaintiff says.
If you are the defendant and you feel that the plaintiff owes you money - arising out of the same case or for an entirely different matter - the defendant can file an answer with Reconventional Demand. If a Reconventional Demand is filed, there is an additional filing fee.
How to Prepare for Your Trial
A trial is the hearing at which you present evidence in support of your claim. There is a trial even if the defendant does not answer or appear.
While you await your trial, you should gather together all of your important papers and documents related to the case. These may include notes on telephone conversations, correspondence, messages, bills, receipts, cancelled checks, contracts, leases, or anything else that may be used as evidence to support your claim. You are responsible for arranging to have witnesses appear to testify on your behalf. Some witnesses will agree to come to court voluntarily. You must inform them of the date, time, and place of the trial and make sure they will be here.
If it is necessary to call a witness who does not want to appear voluntarily, ask the Clerk of City Court to issue a subpoena in advance requiring this person to appear. There will be an aditional charge for this service. To protect your interests, you should subpoena each witness necessary for the presentation of your claims or defense.
It is essential for the plaintiff to understand that most judges follow the "preponderance of evidence" rule in small claims court. What this means is that the plaintiff's evidence must be heavier in order for him to win the case. Therefore, if your suit involves a complex piece of machinery - a defective car or appliance - you may want to ask an expert witness in the field (e.g. a mechanic or appliance repairman) to testify at your trial.
If the defendant decides to settle the case out-of-court before the trial and you agree, you must go back to the Clerk of City Court and arrange for dismissal of the case. Many small claims suits are settled before they come to trial. However, to assure that the settlement is legally binding, make certain the offer is put in writing and that both parties sign it. Take the signed agreement to the court and request the judge to record the judgment in the case. This will protect your rights and save the trouble of filing a new suit if the party at fault fails to live up to the terms of the agreement.
If you find that you will be unable to attend court on the date set, notify the Clerk in writing as soon as possible in order to make arrangements for a postponement or a continuance. In case of an emergency, you may have someone who represents you go to court to ask the Judge for a continuance.
What to do the Day of the Trial
The plaintiff will present his case first and he may be allowed to present evidence to disprove the case of the defendant.
There will not be a jury. The judge will try the entire case. It is his responsibility to get the facts necessary to render a fair judgment. He can summon witnesses, raise defenses, take testimony, ask questions, etc., whatever is required to ascertain the true facts of the case.
There may or may not be lawyers present. The judge will set rules and see to it that the rights and interests of both parties are upheld. Whether attorneys are present or not, the procedure in Small Claims Court will be informal and the technical rules of evidence relaxed.
Present your facts in a straightforward manner. Tell the truth. Remember, you will be under oath. Explain to the judge why you feel the defendant owes you money, or why the business or firm you are suing has failed to live up to its commitment. Call your witnesses to give their testimony. The judge may question you and your witnesses to obtain the information he needs to arrive at a fair decision. Answer all questions directly and honestly. The judge may allow any procedure he thinks is fair to both sides, subject to the rules of evidence and existing law. But, do not forget, the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff. You must prove your case in order to receive a judgment in your favor.
When you have concluded your case, the judge will hear the defendant's side. You may question his witnesses after the defendant has presented his initial testimony.
Frequently in small claims proceedings, either ther plaintiff or the defendant will not appear at the trial. If the plaintiff does not show up, the judge may dismiss the case altogether and award no money. If the defendant fails to appear, the judge will still hear the plaintiff's testimony. He may then rule that the defendant was in "default" and award the plaintiff the money he requested. In all Louisiana courts, judgment by default may be rendered only after producation of satisfactory and competent evidence, with certain exceptions. Notice of judgment must be served or mailed to the defendant if he was not served with the plaintiff's petitions personally and did not appear or answer the suit.
After the Trial
If the judge decides that you win, he may only award you part of the money requested, or whatever amount of damages he thinks you have proved you deserve. The judgment of the court becomes a legal obligation after it is signed. If the judgment is in your favor, you are responsible for seeing that your judgment is properly recorded. The Clerk of City Court will tell you how and where to file your judgment.
A judgment merely establishes the fact that the defendant owes you money. A judgment does not necessarily mean you will be paid. Some people are never paid, for one reason or another.
In order to collect your money, you may have to take further action, such as having property of the defendant seized. Again, it is your job to ascertain where the defendant works or to obtain an accurate description of the property you want to seize.
If you do not have this information, you can file a judgment debtor rule to require the defendant to appear in court and you can ask questions about his assets or to "garnish" the defendant's wages. The Clerk's office will be able to supply orders and documents to help you collect it. Any additional court action to collect a judgment will cost additional money, but costs are court costs and will be added to the judgment the defendant must pay.