Pay attention area businesses. Small claims have become a bigger deal. The limit on these claims has now jumped to $5,000. Issues such as debt collection, unsatisfactory services, defective merchandise, property damage, and liability concerns may now attract more attention in what is commonly called “The People’s Court.”
The recent increase to $5,000 quietly took place several months ago. As such, this could have an impact on your business becoming a future plaintiff or defendant in Small Claims Court. If you are unfamiliar with this particular court system, there are a few things you need to know.
Small claims are initiated by the plaintiff going to the county courthouse and filing a formal complaint. Filing fees must be paid which vary according to the amount of the claim. The next step will involve serving your claim on the defendant either by certified mail or hand delivered by the county sheriff. This of course means further fees. If you are the defendant, you must choose one of the following options and respond within 14 days:
1. Pay the amount of money being sought plus what the plaintiff had to pay for filing and service fees, or;
2. Demand a hearing and/or file a counterclaim against the plaintiff, or;
3. Pay an additional fee and request a jury trial. (A defendant can demand a jury trial only if the claim is for more than $750).
As noted, filing a small claim is not a cost-free process. Any business which enters into the Small Claims Court process must weigh out the costs of filing and service fees, taking time to complete the paperwork, and then setting aside at least half a day when the hearing is scheduled.
Many businesses are unaware that the majority of small claims are reconciled before facing the judge. The day you arrive for your hearing, you will be given the opportunity of mediating the claim prior to the judge holding court. The mediation is voluntary and strictly confidential. It begins with the plaintiff and defendant meeting with the mediator(s) in a private setting. Impartial mediators help the parties define the issues, communicate more effectively, resolve misunderstandings, and explore solutions to their disputes.
The mediators do not take sides, give advice, or impose settlements. Mediation helps people reach agreements that are workable, lasting, and mutually agreeable.
For the most part, the mediation is a risk-free process. It can end at any point deemed necessary by either party. If no agreement is reached, the claim can then go before the judge who will render a decision that cannot be appealed.
Most parties do not like having decisions dictated to them. For this reason, mediation serves as a viable option. Businesses which may be party to a potential small claim should be aware that mediation is also an option prior to filing a claim or spending time at the courthouse. Organizations such as the Community Dispute Resolution Program offer similar services to area businesses at no charge. These programs which have become widespread and successful throughout Oregon, help parties find common ground before turning to a court battleground.
More often then not, parties end their courtroom sessions stating, “This whole situation has gotten ridiculous. We should have resolved this issue before letting it get to this point.” The option is always available.
Should your business find itself in a situation headed for Small Claims Court, consider the costs of filing, the time involved, and the negative feelings associated with a day in court.
Very few parties walk away from the court setting feeling as if they truly prevailed. Before heading in that direction, consider the option of being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Then again, you could become like those on television facing Judge Judy.
Questions or comments for BUSINESS RESOLVE can be directed to the Community Dispute Resolution Program at 383-0187 (Bend), 325-5506 (Madras), or 416-2055 (Prineville). H. Bruce Miller is a Bend public relations consultant and writer. You can send questions about writing to him at