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How to Win In Small Claims Court

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Small Claims Court

Small claims vary by state but the general idea is the same – trials are more informal.  The Rules of Evidence, although liberally applied, are still in effect.  You have to be prepared and professional. 

For purposes of this video we are assuming you have already been through mediation and all that stuff – you are going to trial with the Judge.  

Here’s what you do:

First, take a look at your Complaint or Statement of Claim.  There are certain facts you will have to prove in order to win.  The Plaintiff has the burden of proving every single important facts so, you first list out those facts.  To make things easier, we are going to use a hypothetical case in which someone with no insurance rear-ended you and refused to pay for the repairs.  Here’s the facts you would list:

FACTS I HAVE TO PROVE

  1. There was an accident Jan. 1 2020 involving my car.
  2. The Defendant was at fault for the accident.
  3. I had Smith Autobody repair the damage caused by the accident.
  4. I paid Smith Autobody $2,500 for the repairs.

Next, you are going to list the witnesses and documents you will need to prove each fact.  You organize yourself this way to make sure you don’t forget to prove a fact.  It looks like this:

FACTS I HAVE TO PROVE AND HOW I WILL PROVE THEM

1. There was an accident Jan. 1 2020 involving my car.

a. Witnesses: Me, my girlfriend, the Defendant.

b. Documents: Pictures from the accident scene, the title to my car.

2. The Defendant was at fault for the accident.

a. Witnesses: Me, my girlfriend, the Defendant.

b. Documents: Pictures from the accident scene.

3. I had Smith Autobody repair the damage caused by the accident.

a. Witnesses: Me, Mr. Smith.

b. Documents: Smith Autobody List of Repairs and Invoice.

4. I paid Smith Autobody $2,500 for the repairs.

a. Witnesses: Me, Mr. Smith

b. Documents: Smith Autobody Invoice, Cancelled Check.

You have just created an overview of your case – some call it an opening statement.  If the Judge asks you what the case is about you basically read from your outline:  “Judge I was rear-ended by the Defendant and the Defendant was at fault.  Me and my girlfriend will testify about how the accident happened and I will show you pictures from the scene.  I had the repair work done by Mr. Smith and I will present you the invoices and proof payment to you to show my damages.” Clear and concise.

Next, now you will review the Defendant’s position from his reply to the Court or, if none, imagine what his position will be.  No Defendant comes into Court without a defense.  

Let’s say when you asked him to pay for the damage to your car the Defendant told you that he would pay for it if you used “his autobody shop” because he used to do autobody work and he knows that Smith Autobody overcharges and their pricing is ridiculous.  

So, now you are going to list possible defenses and what witnesses and documents will refute them.  Your case sheet will now look like this:

FACTS I HAVE TO PROVE AND HOW I WILL PROVE THEM

1. There was an accident Jan. 1 2020 involving my car.

a. Witnesses: Me, my girlfriend, the Defendant.

b. Documents: Pictures from the accident scene, the title to my car.

2. The Defendant was at fault for the accident.

a. Witnesses: Me, my girlfriend, the Defendant.

b. Documents: Pictures from the accident scene.

3. I had Smith Autobody repair the damage caused by the accident.

a. Witnesses: Me, Mr. Smith.

b. Documents: Smith Autobody List of Repairs and Invoice.

4. I paid Smith Autobody $2,500 for the repairs.

a. Witnesses: Me, Mr. Smith

b. Documents: Smith Autobody Invoice, Cancelled Check.

DEFENSES

1. Smith Autobody invoice for $2,500 was inflated and not reasonable

a. Witnesses: Mr. Smith

b. Documents: Smith Autobody itemized costs and timesheet

And that sheet is your case – all on one page!  There’s only one thing to add.  In Court you can’t just hand the Judge a document out of the blue for the Judge to review.  

Everything the Judge looks at must be authenticated.  

That means that a witness must tell the Judge that the document is what it is based on the witnesses first-hand knowledge.  Sounds complicated but it’s not – just remember a witness must tell the Judge what everything is – as though the Judge is a 2 year old who doesn’t know anything.  

Your first document you’ve listed are the pictures from the accident – who is going to tell the Judge what those are?  Easy – your girlfriend took the pictures so she is going to tell the Judge what they are and you are going to hand the Judge the pictures while she is testifying.  

So, next to each document you are using, put the person who is going to authenticate it.  Your final overview sheet will look like this:

FACTS I HAVE TO PROVE AND HOW I WILL PROVE THEM

1. There was an accident Jan. 1 2020 involving my car.

a. Witnesses: Me, my girlfriend, the Defendant.

b. Documents: Pictures from the accident scene (Girlfriend), the title to my car (Me).

2. The Defendant was at fault for the accident.

a. Witnesses: Me, my girlfriend, the Defendant.

b. Documents: Pictures from the accident scene (Girlfriend).

3. I had Smith Autobody repair the damage caused by the accident.

a. Witnesses: Me, Mr. Smith.

b. Documents: Smith Autobody List of Repairs and Invoice (Mr. Smith).

4. I paid Smith Autobody $2,500 for the repairs.

a. Witnesses: Me, Mr. Smithb. Documents: Smith Autobody Invoice (Mr. Smith), Cancelled Check (Me).

DEFENSES

1. Smith Autobody invoice for $2,500 was inflated and not reasonable

a. Witnesses: Mr. Smith.

b. Documents: Smith Autobody itemized costs and timesheet (Mr. Smith).

And that’s your final Trial Overview Sheet.

So it’s now the week before the trial.  

There’s two things you have to do: One, you have to print out 3 copies of all your documents, including pictures.  One copy for the Defendant, one for you and one for the Judge.  Don’t bring in your phone and try and show the Judge pictures – physical copies.  

Two, you have to arrange to have your witnesses.  In some jurisdictions like Florida your witness can testify by telephone.  But if they don’t pick up the phone call when the Court calls– they aren’t testifying.  You have to make sure they show up or you will lose!

Okay so, Now it’s the day of trial.  

You and your girlfriend (make sure not to break up with her before trial) go to Court with your 3 copies of your exhibits.  Mr. Smith meets you in the hallway – he’s a nice guy.  The bailiff brings you in and the Judge, after a few opening comments says she’s read your Complaint already and asks you to call your first witness.  

Here you go:

You call your girlfriend first.  She tells the Judge on January first she was in the passenger seat of your car when she heard a crash and got thrown back in her seat and she got out and saw the Defendant get out of the car that had hit you from behind.  You ask her if she took any pictures and she says “yes.”  Here is where the magic must happen – write this down because you are about to get the pictures into evidence:

1. “Judge may I provide copies of the pictures to the Defendant and show them to the witness?”  (Yes)

2. Give copies to Defendant and witness. “Are these the pictures you took right after the accident? (Yes)  Do they show the position of the cars right after the accident? (Yes)3. Judge I’d like to present these pictures as evidence to the Court.

That’s it.  You have authenticated the pictures and now the Judge can take a look at them.  Once you have the pictures in evidence, cross them off your list.  That way you won’t forget to get a piece of evidence in.

And you do the same thing with your other documents.  For example, the Smith Autobody Invoice:

Question: Mr. Smith did you create an invoice for the repairs to my car? (Yes)

1. “Judge may I provide copies of the invoice to the Defendant and show them to the witness?”  (Yes)

2. Give copies to Defendant and witness. “Is this the invoice? (Yes)  Does the invoice total $2,500? (Yes)

3. Judge I’d like to present this invoice as evidence to the Court.

Done – invoice into evidence.

And that, my friends, is all you need to know to win at your small claims trial.  Make sure you prove every single fact with witnesses and evidence. Be organized.  And know how to authenticate your evidence. You’re going to do great!

Jeremy Hogan
Jeremy Hogan
Attorney Jeremy Hogan is a partner at Hogan & Hogan.