When you're getting sued, you're probably more worried about how to fight the lawsuit rather than which court you'll have to fight it in. But there are a few key differences between small claims and superior court that are important to know.
For definitions of legal terms, click here.
Small claims court
• Damages are limited. Most states restrict damages to $7,5000 or less, so don't fret about paying out large sums of money.
• Attorneys play a smaller role. Most states don't allow attorneys to represent either party during small claims hearings. Therefore, most plaintiffs don't hire an attorney at all in order to save money. But as the defendant, you do need an attorney. A lawyer will walk you through the lawsuit process and may even get the case dismissed.
• Plaintiffs are at a potential disadvantage. Depending on the laws in your state, your attorney's trial brief can argue that the plaintiff can't prove malpractice without getting an expert (most likely another veterinarian) to testify about your standard of care. Most plaintiffs can't find such an expert, and judges usually dismiss the case as a result.
• There is no limit on damages. In superior court, plaintiffs can be awarded money for emotional distress. However, most states don't allow such damages in veterinary malpractice suits.
• Attorneys are integral. The formal procedures involved in superior court require both parties to hire an attorney. In superior court, a plaintiff must complete an involved complaint that includes his or her own name, the prosecuting attorney's name, the defendant's name, the causes of action, factual allegations to support the causes of action, and the requested damages. Plus, attorneys will represent both you and the plaintiff in a settlement meeting or at the trial.
• You'll get served. After the complaint is filed, a process server will come to your hospital to personally serve you with the documents. Despite what you've seen on TV, there is no advantage to avoiding service. Most states implement fallback procedures to ensure the service is eventually successful.
• You'll endure—and benefit from—discovery. Attorneys for both parties will work to learn as much information as possible through a process called discovery. The attorneys will use the information they discover to build their cases. Even though this can be a long, drawn-out process, the more your attorney learns, the more likely you are to win.