Yes, you can file an NYC personal injury lawsuit without representation or counsel.
In legal terms, this is called pro se, which translates from Latin to "for oneself."
In fact, there's no legal situation in which you must retain a lawyer. You always have the right to represent yourself. But even though you have the right to do something, doesn't mean it's a good idea (as anyone who has tested the bounds of "free speech" is well aware).
So how do you decide?
The question is really about money: how much are you asking for? Every lawsuit asks for some sort of compensation. You have to prove that you were wronged, and that you lost out on something because you were wronged. Usually, plaintiffs argue that they lost out on a certain financial amount; they ask for money.
Whether or not you should represent yourself is usually a matter of how much you're asking for. Small amount? Maybe representation isn't necessary. Large amount? You should probably hire an attorney.
But how do you know what "small" and "large" mean?
It turns out that there are courts designed to hear pro se cases, ones on the smaller side of the spectrum. In New York, "small claims courts" handle lawsuits that involve claims of $5,000 or less.
To pursue these small-value cases, you actually can't have a lawyer. New York's website has a whole section on "Representing Yourself" if you want to learn more about what that entails.
Cases with higher values at stake aren't eligible for small claims court. Instead, you'll be filing your lawsuit in a traditional civil court. Most likely, you can't afford to lose a case like this. Filing and administrative fees are higher, so it's crucial to give yourself a fighting chance.
Usually, that means hiring an experienced lawyer.
But if you suffered a small, demonstrable loss (one you can prove to a judge), you should consider small claims court.
According to the New York State Unified Court System, you can use small claims court only to sue for money. "You cannot sue...to force a person or business to perform a task...or to fulfill a promise made in an advertisement." Only monetary claims will be heard.
There are small claims courts in every town, village and city of New York State. In towns and villages, your claim must be $3,000 or lower. In a city, you can ask for up to $5,000. And you have to use the court wherever the person you are suing lives, not your own if you live somewhere else.
Small claims courts are a little looser than civil courts; New York considers them "informal". But it's still your duty to be fully informed of the laws governing your complaint, so you'll need to do a lot of research to stay within the lines. Most courts have clerks who can help you file your claim. Judges will assist you if there's no clerk.
Courts also provide "self-help" sections with necessary forms that you can print and fill out.
First, find the appropriate court, the one where the person you want to sue lives. You can find a list of small claims courts in New York City here or search for ones throughout the State here.
If the defendant you want to sue lives in a town or village, but you want to claim more than $3,000, you'll have to find a City court in their district.
Now go to the court and ask for the documents you need to file a claim. You'll fill out a short statement, describing the event that you are suing about and anyone who was involved.
Then you'll pay a filing fee, which can vary depending on how much money you're asking for and what kind of court you're in.
In a town or village:
In a city:
The clerk will assign you a hearing date and "serve" the defendant by sending them a notice to appear at the hearing.
How are you going to prove your case? With evidence! If you slipped and fell on an unsafe staircase, bring thorough photographic evidence of the defects. If you were assured of a product's good quality, but found out that it was broken, bring the merchandise.
Anything that can help prove your case should be brought to your hearing. Testimony, the statements you give in court, are also considered evidence. If you had an accident, contact any witnesses and ask them to testify on the day of your hearing.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, people are unwilling to testify in court. But if you need them to, you can have the small claims clerk issue a "subpoena," which will legally command them to appear at your hearing. In New York State, a "subpoena" will cost you $15, and you may have to cover their travel costs, too.
Arrive at least 15 minutes before the time of your hearing. If you're late, your case will be dismissed. If the defendant is late, the case will probably be decided based only on your testimony. This is called a "default judgement."
You'll have to wait until your case is "called" by the court clerk. When it is, the clerk will usher you into the courtroom, along with the defendant you're suing.
You, the "claimant" or "plaintiff," go first. You'll be sworn in as a witness and then proceed to explain your side of events. If you're presenting any evidence, you should bring it up now and present any necessary documents to the judge. The judge and defendant are allowed to ask you questions if they need to clarify any points.
You can present witnesses if you need to. They'll be sworn in and testify as you did.
Then the defendant is allowed to testify, telling their side of the story after being sworn in.
And that's pretty much it. After hearing all testimony, and reviewing all the evidence, the judge will make a decision. In the vast majority of small claims, there's no jury. Defendants are allowed to request one, comprised of six people, but they have to pay several fees.
Claim below $5,000? A court of small claims is probably the way to go. But even at higher values, you don't necessarily need an attorney. So why do most plaintiffs end up hiring one?
Every court has its own particular procedures and rules. You'll need to learn the specifics where you plan to sue.
An experienced attorney in your area already knows these rules, and they've worked appropriately within them for years.
Law, the intricate body of statutes governing what we do and do not have the right to do, is massive and complex. It's also far and away the best reason to hire a lawyer.
You may know one law, but how can you be sure that it's the right one to file a claim under? And what if you're interpreting it incorrectly? What if you are, but not in the same way that the court you're suing has interpreted it in the past?
Matters of law quickly become overwhelming. An attorney has spent their life learning the law inside and out, so you don't have to.
If you miss one, and forget to file the right documents at the right time, your case will be dismissed out-of-hand.
Staying on top of a time limit might sound easy, but you also have a life. Can you take the time away from your family and work to properly prepare your case?
Are you suing in the right place? Different courts have authority over different areas and separate legal matters; they rarely overlap.
File a lawsuit in the wrong court and your case will be dismissed.
Still wondering whether you should hire an attorney or file a small claim?
Contact the personal injury lawyers at Banville Law for a free consultation. You'll hear from an attorney within 24 hours - just describe your situation, and we'll offer our take with no obligation. Who knows? You may have a bigger claim than you think.