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What Kinds of Cases are Heard in Small Claims Court?

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Small claims courts hear cases brought by people, businesses and government agencies.

Lawyers call the reasons to start a lawsuit “causes of action.”Opens new window  In all courts, these “causes” usually fall into one of two kinds of law: contract law or tort law. 

  • A “contract” is an agreement between two or more people (or other parties) to do, or not do, a particular thing. Contracts may be written, verbal or implied from the circumstances. 
  • A “tort” is an act that injures someone or their property in some way, for which the injured person may sue the wrongdoer for money.


The most common kinds of cases heard in small claims court are about: 

  • Auto accidents 
  • Property damage 
  • Landlord/tenant rent deposit disputes 
  • Money owed 
  • Home or car repair services


The following is a list of some of the other kinds of cases heard in small claims court, organized by “causes of action.”
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Animals – Injuries Caused by Animals, or Injuries to Animals (“Animal Torts”) 

  1. Dog bites – as described under California Civil Code, Section 3342. Opens new window (Also check municipal codes.) 
  2. Injuries caused by a vicious domestic pet (such as a pet snake, pet rat, etc.). 
  3. Injuries to a household pet, or to farm animals.

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Contracts Broken (“Breach of Contract”).  For example:
 

  1. Someone did not do what he or she agreed to do, or did not pay for services described in the contract. For example, the car was not repaired satisfactorily, or the roof was not fixed, or paint job on the porch was not good. Or, the customer did not pay after someone repaired their car, fixed their roof, or painted their porch. 
  2. Someone who has a contract with another person informs the person that he or she intends to break their contract in the future. (Called “anticipatory breach.”) 
  3. Someone promises to do something, and the person believed him or her. But then the first person does not do what he or she agreed to do and this causes harm. (Called “promissory estoppel.”)

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Defamation and Privacy 

  1. Libel.  Someone harms the reputation of someone else – usually in writing, but it could be with a picture, sign, or electronic media. 
  2. Slander.  Someone harms the reputation of someone else through speech. 
  3. Intrusion (invasion of privacy): someone entering without permission. 
  4. Public disclosure of private facts

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Emotional Distress 

  1. Intentional infliction of emotional distress (extreme personal suffering caused by someone on purpose); 
  2. Negligent infliction of emotional distress (extreme personal suffering caused by someone because they were not careful).

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Employment
 

  1. Discrimination (unequal treatment) due to:

    • Physical disability,
    • Race,
    • Sex,
    • Age,
    • National origin,
    • Religion. 
  2. Negligent hiring and retention 
  3. Employer’s failure to obtain worker’ compensation insurance policy. 
  4. Dangerous conditions in work place.

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Governments – Broken Contracts, or Injuries Caused by a Government Agency or by a Public Official 

  1. Local or State Government
    Before you can file a claim against a government agency, you have to follow that agency’s claim procedures. (Called “exhausting administrative remedies.”) 

    • If you received a written rejection of your claim by the governmental agency, you have 6 months from the date the notice was served on you to file your claim. 
    • If you do not get a rejection letter, you have 2 years to file from the day the incident occurred. (If you have not heard anything within 45 days the claim is considered rejected.) 
  2. The Federal Government
    You cannot sue a federal government agency in Small Claims Court.  To sue the United States government, you may file in a Limited Civil Court or in a Federal District Court.

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Insurance Company – Your Own

(NOTE:  In California you cannot sue someone else’s insurance company.) 

  1. If the insurer breaks the written insurance contract. 
  2. If the insurer does not act in the best interest of the person or business insured. (Called “breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”)

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Intentional Injury Involving a Contract

Someone intentionally encourages a person with a contract to break that contract, causing damage to the relationship between the contracting parties. (Called “tortious interference with contract.”)

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Negligence -- when someone is careless and injures another person or their property, such as:
 

  1. Accidents by a common carrier (such as a trucking company, railroad or airline); 
  2. Malpractice by a professional – a doctor, dentist, lawyer, or psychotherapist; 
  3. Parents when their children’s acts injure someone, or someone’s property; 
  4. Providing alcohol to minors; 
  5. A landlord’s legal responsibility for conditions or activities on their property.

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Physical Injury
 

  1. Touching another person without permission – it could be violent or not. (Called “battery.”) 
  2. Threatening to use force on someone else. (Called “assault.”) 
  3. False imprisonment.

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Property Injury
 

  1. Intentionally taking property without permission (Called “conversion” – or stealing, or theft.) 
  2. Damaging property accidentally (Called “negligence”). 
  3. Damaging property intentionally (Called “vandalism”).

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Real Estate Broker, Escrow Agent & Notary Public 

  1. Broker intentionally did not give the purchaser very important information (Called “fraudulent concealment.”) 
  2. Broker didn’t inspect a property and tell the purchaser about problems it might have – as described under California Civil Code, Section 2079Opens new window
  3. When a person who authorized another to be their agent Opens new window didn’t deal with their agent fairly. (Called “principal’s breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing.”) 
  4. When an agent that temporarily holds something of value to two parties who have entered into a valid contract, such as money or the deed to land to be exchanged, causes harm due to lack of care or not otherwise not fulfilling its duty. (Called “Escrow agent’s negligence and constructive fraud.”)

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Real Property 

  1. Trespassing. (When a person intentionally enters onto someone else’s land illegally that is visibly enclosed. Or, when a person causes something to enter another’s land illegally, such as throwing a rock on purpose at a neighbor’s window.) 
  2. Intentionally making a false statement that casts doubt on another person’s ownership of property. (Called “slander of title.”) 
  3. Creating a condition that interferes with a person’s enjoyment of his or her property, but does not involve trespass (Called “private nuisance” -- such as the neighbor’s barking dog, or renting to tenants who use or manufacture illegal drugs) or creating a condition that interferes with the general public’s use of public property (Called “public nuisance”).

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