How to Present Evidence in Small Claims Cases - dummies

How to Present Evidence in Small Claims Cases

By Judge Philip Straniere

Sometimes what you need to prove your small claims case is not testimony from other people but hard evidence in the form of documents or photographs that graphically prove your point. It’s your job to gather and present this evidence to the court.

How to place photographs into evidence

One of the ways to prove the extent of damage you suffered as a result of the defendant’s actions is to bring photographs to the trial. Photographs of the location of the accident, how the car looked after the accident, or your yard looked like after your neighbor’s tree fell in it are all helpful in proving your case.

There’s a proper way to submit photos as evidence. The accuracy of the photograph must be established or authenticated, especially because technology makes it so easy to alter photos today.

When introducing photographs, follow these guidelines:

  • Make copies before the trial date. You should even send copies to your opponent so she isn’t surprised at the time of the trial. If the evidence in the photos is overwhelming enough, the defendant may decide to settle rather than fight.

  • Submit only a few photos. Generally there is no need to have 100 pictures of the couch damaged by the sewer backup. Sometimes overkill makes the judge’s eyes glaze over and reduces the impact of the evidence.

  • Label the photos. Include pertinent information so that the judge knows what she’s looking at when she reviews the pictures. Keep the labels as short as possible. A label should be something like: living room floor, 123 Main St., with the date of the photo and either the case number or names of the parties.

If you’re taking photos to be used as evidence, follow these guidelines:

  • In taking a picture of an intersection, try to include a street sign, house number, or some other recognizable landmark that establishes the location.

  • If you’re trying to establish the condition of an apartment on the date you vacated, including a daily newspaper with a readable date can help, especially if your camera doesn’t date the photograph.

  • Judging the size of something from a photograph can sometimes be difficult. If the size of a hole or the distance one thing is from another is important to your case, use a ruler or yardstick or some other item to give a general idea of the size.

If you have the photos on your cellphone or some other electronic device, make copies of them. Otherwise, your phone will have to be put into evidence. And if the court doesn’t make a decision right away, your phone will be staying with the judge until the case is decided.

One way to get a photograph into evidence is to show it to the defendant and ask her to identify the location in the photograph or the condition of the item or premises shown. However, the danger with doing that is that if the defendant says the photo doesn’t reflect the conditions, you may be stuck with the defendant’s answer because you called her as your witness.

If your case involves an incident that required either party to notify an insurance carrier, there’s a good chance that the insurance company took pictures. If you want the defendant’s insurance company to bring the pictures to court, you may have to subpoena them in advance of the trial.

The danger with relying on the defendant or the defendant’s insurance company’s pictures and not on your own photographs is that if they don’t have them at the trial, you have a problem. And relying on something you haven’t seen to prove your case can be very dangerous.

How to put documents into evidence

In order to get a document into evidence, you have to explain where it came from, who produced it, why you have it, and what it shows about your case.

A big problem litigants have is with bills and receipts that don’t identify the source; that is, they’re written on a receipt paper that can be purchased at any stationary store.

A receipt also rarely says who the purchaser is. If you’re submitting a document from a store containing what you allege are all the items purchased to correct the improperly performed work of the defendant, and the receipt doesn’t have your name on it or the address where the materials were delivered, the receipt is practically useless. It may have been acquired by anyone for use at any location.

Another mistake you can make is to submit a receipt that contains items purchased for another purpose and not arising from the issues of the case.

Another problem is that the bill is not marked “paid” or if it is marked, it doesn’t say how it was paid — cash, check, or credit card. If you used a credit card to pay the bill, you’ll have to bring the monthly statement from the card issuer showing that it’s your charge card and the item was purchased.

If you’re purchasing materials to correct damage you allege resulted from the defendant’s actions, try to make sure that the receipt identifies the source, designates who is the purchaser, and how payment was made. The failure to have such documentation often means that the receipt cannot come into evidence and you’re stuck trying to prove your case using other means.

How to submit evidence when you’re the defendant

All of the rules concerning how evidence is presented apply to the defendant just as well as the plaintiff. The difference is that the defendant doesn’t have to present any evidence initially.

However, if you, as the defendant, have asserted an affirmative defense, a counterclaim or cross-claim, you have the burden of proof on those issues and have to present evidence in support of those contentions. The same rules and warnings apply to you just as if you were the plaintiff.