The start of a lawsuit begins with a complaint. One mistake that pro se litigants often make is that they do not ask for enough damages in the complaint. A pro se party is someone who represents himself in court without a lawyer. A judge can always award less than what was asked for in the complaint but he or she cannot award an amount more than what was asked for. That’s why it is important to always ask for the most damages in a complaint even though you might not expect to get all of it.
While sitting in court yesterday, waiting for my client’s case to be called, I observed a pro se party who regretted that he did not ask for the most damages in his complaint. He was a landlord who successfully evicted his tenant and he was asking the court to award him the amount necessary to repair the apartment damaged by the former tenant. The landlord filed the complaint with an estimate of the damages before he had an opportunity to find out how much it would really cost to make the necessary repairs. Fortunately for the landlord, the tenant did not appear in court. Unfortunately for the landlord, the cost to repair was more than what he had in the complaint.
The judge offered the landlord two options. The landlord could accept the judge’s award in the amount that was asked for in his complaint or he could amend his complaint to include a higher dollar amount. The landlord wisely chose to accept the amount that he asked for in the complaint. If he had chosen to amend his complaint, the landlord would have had to send notice to the tenant that the new complaint included a higher dollar amount. This may have motivated the client to appear in court and challenge the amount, creating more costs and requiring the landlord to fight harder. Instead, the landlord learned his lesson to ask for the most damages in future complaints.
However, the amount that you ask for in a complaint has to be reasonable. You must have facts that support your claim for damages. If you don’t know the exact amounts yet, include reasonable estimations on the costs but use the high end of the range.