Can you sue someone in small claims court for more than the actual dollar amount of the damage they caused eg. punitive damages?

UPDATED: Oct 1, 2022

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Can you sue someone in small claims court for more than the actual dollar amount of the damage they caused eg. punitive damages?

Our company operates in Washington state, and we hired someone in New York state to perform some work for our company, the value of which was approximately $6300. We feel that he failed to deliver what he promised, and we are considering suing to get our money back. Would it be possible to sue him for more than the amount we paid him? In the absence of any other complicating factors, is that possible?

Asked on September 24, 2018 under Business Law, Washington


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 4 years ago | Contributor

1) You can't sue for more than actual loss--i.e. for more than the actual damage they caused.
2) If he was a contractor who failed to deliver what he agreed to deliver (e.g. some work product) or turned in a commercially unacceptable work product, you could sue him for some or all of what you paid him--generally, if you got some value from what was turned in, you can't get all your money back but must let him keep the fair market value of what he did turn in.
If he actually met his deliverables and it is commercially acceptable, just as not as good as you'd like, you can't sue him: it must be unacceptable or unusable.
If he was an employee, not a contractor, you can't sue him for poor work output--all you could do was terminate him when you deemed him not worth what you were paying.

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