If you’ve ever seen a television court show, you know what to expect in a small claims trial. The judge starts by allowing the plaintiff to explain the case and present evidence. You’ll be expected to listen quietly no matter how infuriating the other side’s statements might be (although you’ll have the right to make evidentiary objections). Afterward, you’ll put forth your evidence, and ultimately, the judge will decide who wins. What you don’t see on television, however, is the preparation and planning that takes place before you appear in court. Not only will your pretrial efforts help you present your case in the best light, but also might be the key to prevailing.
(If you don’t have any assets that the plaintiff can get, preparing a defense might be unnecessary. Find out more by reading What It Means to Be Judgment Proof: Your Creditors Can't Collect From You.)
Planning Your Strategy: What’s Driving the Case?
Preparing a defense starts with identifying the motivation of the plaintiff (the person or company that filed the suit). In truth, most people prefer to let minor disputes go rather than launching into a small claims case because filing, serving, and presenting the case—not to mention collecting the judgment—takes a lot of effort. So, the question becomes, “Why did this plaintiff sue me?”
The answer likely lies in the type of opponent that you’re facing. Here are a few common categories.
- A plaintiff with a winning case who knows you can afford to pay a judgment.
- An aggressive, arrogant plaintiff who believes that they can sway the court.
- An angry plaintiff who wants to punish you with a court battle.
- Some combination of the above.
Once you know who you’re dealing with, you’ll be able to formulate your overall strategy.
When you don’t have a plausible defense. If the plaintiff stands a good chance of winning, you’ll want to look for holes that could prevent the plaintiff from meeting the evidentiary burden (proving the case—more below). If the case is sound, it’s reasonable to cut your losses and agree to pay what you owe (or less). Defenseless cases usually involve a failure to pay a well-documented debt, such as rent or a credit card bill.
When you have a good chance of prevailing. Most people have a better chance of winning against an arrogant or vengeful plaintiff. Think of this plaintiff as a confident bully or a practiced victim (not to be confused with an actual victim). You can get far by presenting your evidence in a level-headed, determined manner. Staying calm and focused will help the judge accurately assess credibility. Such cases involve things like injuries resulting from a physical altercation, property damage, an unreasonable repair bill, or a fallout with a business partner. (This dynamic can arise in frivolous restraining order matters, too.)
(If you just want the case to go away, you can find out how to make that happen by reading Will Filing for Bankruptcy Stop a Civil Lawsuit?)
Evaluating Your Case: The Particulars
Once you’ve thoroughly read the complaint and honestly assessed your case, you’ll want to ask yourself more questions, including:
- Are you listed in the complaint caption? If your name doesn’t appear on the first page, and you don’t know anything about the case, you might not need to take action. It’s possible that you were served by mistake. To be sure, you’ll want to consult with an attorney.
- How long ago did the incident occur? The plaintiff must file the suit within a particular period called the “statute of limitations.” The time frame is usually one to six years depending on your state and the type of case (but it could be longer). If the plaintiff filed the action too late, you'd respond by filing a pleading (a court document) objecting on that basis.
- Are you being sued in your county? In most cases, the plaintiff must come to you. If you’re facing a lawsuit in a county that you don’t reside in, the court might agree to transfer the case. However, be aware that it’s common for a plaintiff to have the right to sue you where your payment is due, or some other place listed in your contract.
- Are you responsible for the wrongdoing claimed in the complaint? If the plaintiff can prove the truth of the allegations, focus your efforts on not paying more than you must. If you are innocent, you’ll prepare a defense.
- Is the plaintiff demanding too much money? If you’re liable (responsible), but the plaintiff wants too much money, you’ll present evidence establishing the actual value of the case. For instance, you can bring in proof that a 20-year-old car is worth less than $1,000, not the $10,000 asked for in the complaint.
- Can you prove your position with evidence? In litigation, the “truth” is the version supported by evidence. You’ll want to present witnesses, documents, or pictures that will serve to discount inaccurate claims.
- Do you have a claim against the plaintiff? If the plaintiff caused you harm, you could ask the court to award you money by filing paperwork called a “cross-complaint.”
This synopsis cannot address every issue that might arise. Instead, you can use it to help you objectively evaluate your case and decide how to proceed.
Filing the Correct Response
Once you’re served with a complaint, you won’t have much time to file a response—usually 30 days or less. Check the laws of your state.
Your case facts will determine how you should respond, and filing the wrong document could mean losing rights. Worse yet, not responding at all could mean automatically losing the case. The court will likely issue a “default judgment” awarding the plaintiff’s requested damages (monetary amount).
Given the high stakes, it’s a good idea to seek professional advice. Even though an attorney cannot represent you, the lawyer can prepare the documents you’ll file with the court. Otherwise, take advantage of resources such as the instructions found on your local court’s website or the help available in one of the free clinics located in many courthouses.
Consider Settling Your Case
In many cases, it makes sense to come to an agreement with the plaintiff before the case goes to trial. It will work best if you can offer to pay an amount slightly more than what the plaintiff could get after deducting expenses, such as the cost of collecting the judgment. Overall, a plaintiff will likely be receptive to a settlement if the plaintiff:
- needs money
- is dreading the hassle of the trial, or
- is worried about losing the case.
If you do settle, you’ll want to get the terms in writing.
Preparing for Trial
Anticipating what the plaintiff will say and present as evidence is essential when preparing your case. In response, you’ll want to present evidence disputing the plaintiff’s allegations. Additionally, if you filed a cross-complaint, you’ll have an affirmative burden to introduce evidence proving your case. For more details about preparing for and attending trial read Success In Small Claims Court.
What to Expect at Trial
After checking that your case is listed on the docket posted outside of the assigned courtroom, you’ll let the court clerk know that you’re there and take a seat in the audience. The bailiff will either provide additional instructions or call your case.
Before hearing the matter, most courts require litigants to go into the hallway for settlement talks. Court personnel or a volunteer might be available to help you reach a compromise. If successful, the court will document the terms of your settlement. Otherwise, the case will go forward, and the judge will decide who wins. In most cases, you’ll learn the result when you receive the judgment in the mail.
Collecting the Judgment
The winner—known as the “judgment creditor”—is entitled to the amount the court orders paid by the loser—the “judgment debtor.” If the debtor doesn’t pay the judgment, the judgment creditor can take steps to collect the debt.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have a defense to this action?
- Can you help me prepare my case?
- What will happen if I lose at trial?