Avoid the Most Common Mistakes in Small Claims Court Cases



You can only expect one shot at presenting your case in Small Claims court. Realistically, in a busy urban courthouse, small claims trials may only get 15 or 20 minutes of live court time. As a result, preparing in advance is an activity that is well worth its time.

Being prepared for your small claims court trial can reduce your stress tremendously, and help you meet your case goals. How? Simple.

To help, we offer the following info on some common small claims court mistakes that you can avoid with a little forethought and preparation.

Common Mistake #1:
Arriving Late for the Court Trial.

If you get to your small claims court date late, you will have no time to 1) relax and prepare for what you need to say in the trial; and 2) no time for proper mediation which may settle the case.

To avoid this mistake, confirm your court date and time in advance. Allow extra, extra time for parking. It always takes longer to park in a courthouse than you think. Expect to pay for parking and to have trouble figuring out how to pay for it.

Most courthouses have long lines at the door in the morning, so prepare for a wait there as well. And you may have a hard time finding the exact courtroom assigned to your case, you will need time to get confused and find your way.

A well prepared small claims court litigant would be in the courthouse at least 1/2 hour before the scheduled court appearance time.



Common Mistake #2:
Wasting Time Addressing Irrelevant Matters.

Time is precious in a small claims court trial. Dont waste a second of it discussing a topic the judge does not need to hear to make a decision. If you do, you will be wasting time that should be used to present your relevant evidence.

If you are in court over a dog bite dispute, don’t spend your precious time in front of the judge talking about dead people, why your car got impounded, or your sex offender registration status. Focus on the evidence.

If you are in court over an apartment security deposit dispute, it does not matter where you work, how your grandmother feels, or what school you graduated from. Focus on preventing the evidence that favors your side, and challenge the evidence that does not support your side.

Common Mistake #3:
Presenting a Case in Random Order, Without a Clear Structure

When a judge hears a small claims case, they are first trying to figure out if the defendant is liable under some theory of law. Only once liability is established does the judge want to hear evidence about the damages.

Because of this, if you are a small claims plaintiff, a solid start would be to present your case in 2 stages, in the following order: 1) evidence on the basis for liability; and 2) evidence the damages you are claiming. Of course there is no set rule on how to present your case. Even if you choose a different path than this example, thinking about your order of presentation in advance will help you.

If you are a defendant, you can present your case in the same manner: 1) address the alleged basis of liability; and then 2) challenge the Plaintiff’s claimed damages. “Your honor, there is no basis for liability here, and even if there were, there are no damages . . .” for example.

Avoid just telling the judge a conclusion without explanation such as, “The Defendant owes me $3000 for back rent.” You will need to assume the judge knows nothing about your case at the trial, and walk them trough your case.

For example, you may wish to first present a rental agreement, and tell the judge this is a breach of contract case. Ten tell the judge that the agreement says Defendant shall pay you $1000 per month. After that, you may move on to state that the Defendant has not paid in 3 months, and therefore, 3 x $1000 is your claim which totals $3000.

Common Mistake #4:
Failure to Bring an Important Witness to Court

You must bring all of your evidence with you to a small claims court trial. The judge will not allow you to bring in evidence after the trial. If you dont bring it with you, it will not be considered by the judge.

If there is a witness or witnesses who are important to your case, they need to be in court to provide evidence with you. You should not expect the court to give you a continuance of your case to get a witness, and the court probably will not consider your description of what a witness saw or said. That witness needs to be in court during the trial to provide evidence if you want that evidence.

Written statements from witnesses who are not present in court are generally considered unreliable hearsay and are generally not admissible.

If you cannot get a witness to appear in small claims court voluntarily, you can subpoena them and compel their appearance.


Common Mistake #5
Failure to Use the Small Claims Court Advisers in Advance

Most courts have small claims help that litigants do not use fully.

Many large courts have “Small Claims Advisers” who are trained to provide help to small claims litigants for free. You can get their contact in of on the court’s web site, usually under the small claims division section. The advisers also usually have a small shared officer in the courthouse where they can discuss cases. Some may be willing to discuss an issue with you via email. You should contact them in advance and you may find they have help on how to serve your papers correctly, whether or not you have the correct defendant, etc.

Examples of Small Claims Court Advisers on the Web:

San Mateo County CA Small Claims Advisers
Fulton County GA Small Claims Advisers

Common Mistake #6:
Not Having Evidence Organized.

A pile of unsorted papers is not good evidence.

The most organized litigants in small claims courts are often those that must appear often, such as home owners associations, and banks. When a well prepared party of this sort shows up, their evidence is often laid out in a binder, with labeled tabs for the items they know the judge will want to see. Contract? Section 1. Payment records? Section 2, and so on.

If you have photos, they should be labeled and dated if you want to make it easy for the judge to review and understand your evidence. If you have receipts as evidence, make sure it is clear what they are for, and when they were obtained. When possible, use labels to ties them to specific items claimed as damages.

If you have video to show the judge, prepare it on a tablet, laptop, or call the courthouse in advance to make sure they have a video monitor in the courtroom that you can use (many courts do have this capability, dont be afraid to ask).

This organization work should be done in advance to avoid stress and help you prepare your argument or presentation. Remember, you must assume the judge knows nothing about your case before you walk into court.


Common Mistake #7:
Failing to Make Use of the Mediation or Pre Trial Settlement Opportunities

Settle the case without a trial if you can.

The winner in a civil court case is often not a winner at all. Rarely does a civil litigant get exactly what they want from the court. Sometimes parties to a suit have distorted views of their claim, or too much emotion invested to make efficient decisions about a claim.

To avoid this problem, you just need to remember 1 thing: There are usually benches in front of every courtroom doorway. Use them.

A small claims case can be settled at any time prior to trial by the parties. There is no penalty for settling a case immediately before the trial in the hallway, and the judge will not be unhappy about it.

In mediation, or during informal settlement talks prior to the start of a small claims trial, the parties can work out payment plans, exact amount owed, etc. If it is true that you owe the plaintiff money, use the mediation prior to the trial to try to work out a payment plan that you know you can meet. After all, if a defendant loses a small claims court trial, the judge is unlikely to hear a request for a payment plan.

If you are the plaintiff and you know the defendant is willing to pay you some of your claim, use the mediation to try to work out the details without taking the risk that the judge will give you less than you are asking for.

Setting a case prior to the small claims trial is often the best way for all parties to resolve a dispute. If it can be settled prior to the trial, there is no public airing of the dispute, and both parties to a settlement generally agree that the settlement is fair. A well prepared litigant will endeavor to get to that point.

Most larger courts have “Small Claims Advisers” Who Are Trained to Provide Free, but Limited Small Claims help. They may be able to help you figure out what damages are available to you, and whether or not you need to add defendants to your case.

OK – that’s it for today kids. Avoid these common mistakes with preparation, and your goals for the case will be much closer.

Questions? Leave a reply.

This entry was posted in Auto Accidents, Going to Court, Small Claims and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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