Injunctions (judicial orders that prevent a party from beginning or continuing an action that infringes on the rights of another) in the U.S. are typically either permanent or preliminary--the distinction being that the former is a post-trial object.

Preliminary injunctions frequently have requirements (undue hardship, irreparable injury, etc.) similar to that of permanent injunctions and are often given for the express purpose of maintaining the status quo prior to an eventual trial.

Many small claims courts do not make equitable remedies available, including injunctions. My question is structural: when the eventual damage is predicted to be small, what preventive recourse is available to stop a party from beginning an infringement?

Made-up examples:

  1. Party A to a commonly held driveway intends to tear up a portion of the pavement to create additional parking for A's exclusive use despite lack of consent from other owners
  2. Party A to a commonly held pavilion improves the property by enclosing it without consent of the other owners and then bills all owners
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    The answer is going to depend on the particular rules of the jurisdiction. Where the small claims court doesn't sit in equity, there will be recourse to some other court. Small claims jurisdictional limits are typically set in dollar amounts of damages. If the only remedy sought is non-monetary then the jurisdiction's rules might permit filing in the normal trial court. – daffy Jul 23 '15 at 0:21
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    @daffy I suppose another way of phrasing the question might be: what legal incentive do prospective damage doers have to avoid infringing on the rights of others? If preventive remedy is onerous and court costs will clearly exceed damages even once the infringement occurs, why don't we see a lot more misbehavior? – Pat W. Jul 23 '15 at 12:24

Many states deal with trespass as an issue you can get an injunction for even if there is no damage to your property at all. For example, in Virginia, the circuit courts require a minimum of $4500 in damages if you are seeking money, but if you ask for an injunction to prevent repeated trespasses, they'll give it to you.

I think the question mistakes slightly the difference between "law" and "equity" in American courts. Amounts of monetary damages are usually damages under law, and there would be requirements that a sufficiently small legal claim be brought in a small claims court that cannot issue an injunction. On the other hand, disrespect for property rights is typically an equitable claim, and can be heard by a court with injunction powers no matter how minimal the actual damage is.

  • thanks for the distinction and the answer. I've heard the injunction process is difficult (some say you shouldn't begin the process unless there are 6-figure damages). I suppose the question is less about injunction availability and more about whether, given their burden, something less cumbersome exists. It seems like the more complicated the injunction process is, the more it reduces the preventive effectiveness of an injunction, and thus there'd be a greater temptation for people to infringe on their neighbors' rights. – Pat W. Jul 26 '15 at 15:55

Well, your examples are sort of edge cases. In most circumstances, there's scant reason to want to improve someone else's property in the first place. And just because a legal remedy might be expensive for the plaintiff to obtain does not mean that it's cheap for the defendant. Thus it still has deterrent value.

  • I'm not sure the first of the two examples is an edge case (I edited it for clarity)...neighbors seem to be constantly involved in property disputes of the sort where someone appropriates some common resource for exclusive use. The second case seems pretty atypical, though. – Pat W. Jul 23 '15 at 16:09

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