You've been sued in small claims court and are now wondering what to do next. Here's a list of things to consider as your hearing date gets closer.
Check Court Rules
- Were you properly served with the paperwork that kicks off the case? The claim form, or complaint, must be sent by the proper method, such as certified mail or hand-delivery by the sheriff or a process server. Also, you must receive the complaint within a certain time before the hearing date. Ask to have the hearing dismissed or postponed if the notice was late or not delivered correctly
- Did the person suing you bring the claim in the right court in the right county? Generally, a case must be filed against you in the county where you live. There are also dollar limits on the value of the claim amount. Ask to have the case dismissed or transferred to the proper court if it was incorrectly filed
- Check your insurance policies (such as your homeowners and auto insurance) to see if your insurance company can defend you)
- Visit the court's web site or clerk's office. The small claims court may provide forms, instruction manuals and other information that will help with your case
- Consult an attorney. Even though a lawyer might not be permitted to accompany to you to the small claims court, your attorney can help you plan your case or even negotiate a settlement before the hearing
- Make sure you file a written response with the court and the person suing you within the required time limits
- If you believe the person suing actually owes you money, file a counterclaim against him or her. Describe the reasons why you think you're owed money. You must also serve your counterclaim on your opponent
- Is someone other than yourself or the person suing responsible for the loss? Consider bringing a third-party complaint against him or her
- Try to settle the case before the hearing. Think about calling or writing the person suing to work out a settlement. Generally both parties in a lawsuit want to avoid a court hearing
- Consider meeting with the person suing you at a mediation. An objective third party, a mediator, listens to both sides and tries to help you reach a settlement. You have nothing to lose but the pain of going to court
Prepare for the Hearing
- If you think you owe nothing to the person suing, carefully consider the "holes" in the case and get yourself prepared to do battle in court. Write down the important events, dates and points that you want to tell the judge
- Gather your evidence. Bring to hearing the original and two copies of all documents that help explain your case. These may include receipts, contracts, cancelled checks, photo's, maps and other items
- Contact witnesses. If other people saw, heard, or otherwise know something that supports your case, arrange for them to attend the hearing. If they can't come to the hearing, ask them to supply a written sworn statement to the court
Attend the Hearing
- Show up at the hearing. If you don't show, the judge will probably give the person suing everything the complaint asks for
- Stay calm and polite. Tell the truth and show respect to the judge and other party. Speak directly to the judge, not the person suing you
- If you know you owe the money, talk to the judge about your reasons for not being able to pay it right away. See if you can arrange payments on a weekly or monthly basis
Questions for Your Attorney
- I missed the deadline for filing a response to the complaint. Can I still file an answer in the small claims court?
- If my counterclaim exceeds the dollar limit for small claims court cases, can I have the case moved to a higher court?
- Can I appeal the case even though I missed the court hearing and a judgment was awarded against me?
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U.S. Small Claims Court
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