Consumer Protection

Success In Small Claims Court

By Cara O'Neill, Attorney
Learn how to prepare and file your small claims case.

Winning in court doesn’t happen by accident. It takes careful planning. If you’re willing to put in the time to prepare your case, you’ll increase your chances of success. In this article, you’ll learn tips that will help you prepare for your day in small claims court.

Researching the Law

You likely know that you’re expected to prove your case by presenting evidence to the court. But what is it that you’ll need to prove? You can find out by locating the law that applies to your case. The law will set forth the factors, called “elements,” that you’ll have to prove with evidence.

Suppose, for instance, that you paid to go on a group excursion that the organizer canceled due to a lack of interest. The organizer failed to return your money, and you’d like it back. Your case is likely a breach of contract case. In other words, the organizer breached (broke) the contract by failing to provide a trip in exchange for a fee.

You’ll need to prove the following in a breach of contract case:

  • You entered into a contract with another person or business.
  • The individual or business failed to live up to the terms of the contract.
  • As a result, you suffered a loss.

To win, you’ll need to present evidence of each of the elements (more below).

Other types of cases that you might bring in small claims include a personal injury case (someone physically harmed you), a property damage case, or a different kind of contract case (perhaps against a contractor who failed to perform work correctly). In most situations, you’ll want to prove that the person you’re suing failed to do something that they were supposed to do and that you lost money (were damaged) as a result.

(Pursuing a case won’t make sense unless the person you’re suing can pay a judgment. Find out more by reading What It Means to Be Judgment Proof: Your Creditors Can't Collect From You.)

Gathering Your Evidence

Once you know what you must prove under the law, you’ll gather needed evidence. For instance, in the canceled trip scenario above, you’d need to establish the existence of a contract. A signed contract would be the best evidence, but a copy of a flyer that you responded to might work, as well. Additionally, you’d have to show that you paid for the trip, and in that regard, a receipt or canceled check should do the trick.

Here are other types of evidence that you might be able to use to meet your evidentiary burden:

  • witnesses
  • photographs
  • letters
  • medical reports and bills
  • business documents
  • receipts, and
  • experts.

Most of the evidence types listed above are self-explanatory. However, you might not know when you’d need to present expert testimony. In some cases, proving that a certain action caused your harm can be difficult. In that case, you’ll need the expertise of someone in a particular field.

For instance, suppose that you started experiencing headaches after getting a massage. Because headaches can be caused by many things, you won’t be able to count on the court attributing the headaches to a bad massage based on your testimony alone (the court probably won’t do so). You’ll have a better chance of winning if you bring in an expert in the field, such as a doctor, who can review your medical records and render a professional opinion that links the massage to the headaches.

The same might hold true if you experience mechanical trouble after taking your car to the repair shop. The court might require an expert to testify that it’s likely that the repair shop caused your car’s particular problem.

Finding the Correct Person or Business to Sue

When it comes to lawsuits, you’ve got to get the target right. You have to sue the correct person or business. If you’re suing an individual, be sure to spell the name properly. If a company caused your harm, you'll need to know the type of business entity. For instance, the business might be one of the following:

  • a sole proprietor with a dba (“doing business as”) name
  • a partnership
  • a limited liability company, or
  • a corporation.

Take the time that you need to get the name right. Suing the wrong person can be a quick way to lose a small claims case.

Sending Out a Demand Letter

It’s a good practice—and often required—to send a letter to the defendant (the person or business that you’re suing) asking or “demanding” the payment of your losses. You’ll want to provide proof of your damage (loss) and give the defendant a deadline to respond.

Drafting and Serving the Complaint

Once you’ve gathered all your information together (and sent out your demand letter), you’ll be ready to put together the legal document that starts the lawsuit: the complaint. How you do this will depend on where you live. Some courts require you to fill out the complaint online. Others might have forms that you can complete and file with the clerk of the court.

After completing the documents, you’ll need to let the defendant know about the case by serving the lawsuit. In most cases, you’ll have to “personally serve” the defendant, which means that someone over the age of 18 who is not part of the suit (not you) must personally deliver the documents to the defendant. After doing so, the “process server” will complete and file a document with the court that affirms that the service took place.

You must give the defendant enough time to prepare for the trial. How far in advance of the trial you must serve the defendant will depend on the laws of your state.

Preparing for Your Trial Date

Participating in a court trial can be nerve-wracking so you’ll want to plan accordingly. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Put together a brief introduction explaining your case.
  • Write out witness questions to make sure that your evidence comes in.
  • Assemble your evidence so that it’s easy to access in court.
  • Make ample copies of all the documents you plan to present to the court because you’ll need to give a set to everyone involved, including the defendant, the judge, and the court clerk.
  • Prepare a closing argument that states why you should win.

Most local courts have websites with lots of useful information. For instance, the court might have rules that prohibit children in the courtroom or the court might provide daycare facilities. Also, it’s a good idea to plan for other issues, such as commute time and parking.

If you can, observe a proceeding beforehand. You’ll get a good feel for what to expect; how to handle your evidence and question witnesses; and even what you should wear (clean and neat business casual attire is a good bet).

(If you’d like to know what the defendant’s preparation might entail, read Defending a Small Claims Case.)

The Day of Trial

When you arrive at the courtroom, you’ll want to check the court’s docket—the listing of the day’s cases—to find where your matter falls (the court usually sets multiple suits at the same time). You’ll wait in the audience until the bailiff or court clerk gives instructions.

Be prepared to go into the hallway to try to settle your case with the opposing party. Most courts will require you to attempt to come to a resolution before hearing the matter. If the action doesn’t resolve, you’ll present your case to the court.

(If you win, you’ll want to learn about small claims judgments. Start by reading Collecting on Small Claims Judgments. Learn more by considering the defendant's perspective in Small Claims Court: Paying a Judgment.)

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can you help me prepare my small claims case?
  • Does it appear that I’ll need an expert witness?
  • If I lose, can you file an appeal on my behalf?

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