Be Careful What You Sue For, It May Be All You Get!

Many times every week we discuss filing suit with potential plaintiffs. Uncomfortable with the high cost of litigation in the Superior Court, sometimes plaintiffs consider filing a reduced or stripped down claim in Justice Court or in Small Claims Court. This is more affordable. It can be done without large legal fees. The thinking often is that they will test the waters with a small claim and file their larger, more comprehensive claims later.

This is dangerous and can be a mistake. This strategy should be used only where there is no intention of filing additional claims later. Because pursuing a small claims court lawsuit to a final judgment may prevent the filing of additional claims later. This was the ruling in a recent Arizona Court Of Appeals case, Peterson v. Fenztlaff. Here is why this is so.

Arizona law strongly favors economical use of the Court’s time. This means that if you have several claims against a party, you should bring them all in one lawsuit. This is especially true if the claims all arise from the same set of facts. A doctrine of claim preclusion has arisen in the law that bars a new lawsuit where 1. The same or very similar claims were already adjudicated in a prior lawsuit; 2. A final judgment was entered in the prior lawsuit; and 3. The parties were the same or closely related in the two lawsuits.

As a practical matter, what this means is that a litigant should be careful to bring all claims against an opposing party in one lawsuit. If any claims, including damage claims, are omitted, they may be waived and important legal rights will have been lost. Meeting with an experienced attorney should almost always be your first line of action before filing any kind of lawsuit, to ensure you aren’t waiving any future rights.