Usually the limit is $7,500, unless an exception applies. A business plaintiff can only sue for up to $5,000. If your damages are more than the limit, you can either "waive the excess" or consider filing in "regular" civil court.
Sue in time
Time limits in law are called statutes of limitations. Depending on your type of case, it can range from 6 months from the date of injury to a typical 2 or 3 years. Make sure your time has not already expired, or your case may be barred.
Sue the right person
It's relatively easy when you're suing a real-life person. However, suing businesses can get tricky in figuring out who to serve and who to name in the lawsuit. Go to http://www.sos.ca.gov/business/ to do a business search.
Sue in the right court
The safest general rule is to sue in the court located either where the defendant lives or does business, or where the injury occurred.
Go to the court to file your lawsuit papers
Filing fees range from $30 to $100. Plaintiffs will fill out a form called SC-100 (see http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/fillable/sc100.pdf) Defendants fill out form SC-120 (see http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/forms/fillable/sc120.pdf)
Serve the papers
You are not allowed to do this step yourself. You need to either hire a "process server" (usually a $25 to $75 fee), or have a friend or family member who is not part of the case hand the papers to the defendant (or the agent for service of process).
Go to court and tell the judge about what happened to you
Small claims is down-to-earth. You don't need to pretend to be a lawyer. The judge just wants to hear your story in a straightforward, concise manner. Practice telling your story in front of the mirror before court, or in to a tape recorder. Watch and listen to how you sound, and practice, practice, practice. Bring all of your written evidence to court with you.
Consider getting help or advice from an attorney for tricky issues
Go to http://pedigolaw.com/california-small-claims-court-advisory-service.html for more information.
Additional resources provided by the author
Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court in California by Nolo Press.
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