Ten Mistakes to Avoid When Going to Small Claims Court - dummies

Ten Mistakes to Avoid When Going to Small Claims Court

By Judge Philip Straniere

Everyone who goes to small claims court goes with one objective in mind: to win. One way to win is to not sabotage your own case by making mistakes that will cost you points in the courtroom. Here are the ten most common and most damaging blunders that can cost you on court day.

Heading for court before thinking about alternatives

Too many people immediately run to court without checking out other options, like trying to resolve the problem directly by talking to your potential future opponent or through mediation or similar out-of-court settlement services.

Do as Goldilocks would do and consider all your options before going to court — bring your case to court only if you’re sure it’s the best way to resolve your dispute. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but it’s also a terrible litigation strategy.

Failing to prepare adequately

Never go to court without taking the time to properly prepare your case. The time to think about proving your case is before you file your case and not after you walk through the courtroom door for your trial.

Information is what often wins a case. Having the proper information before you file you lawsuit prevents you from having your case bounced. Show up knowing the correct names, addresses, dates, and other details to support your claim.

Know who is the responsible party you want to sue, know what you want to prove, know how to prove it, and know what to do if you win or lose. You should have answers to all these issues before you file your suit.

Assuming the judge understands what you’re talking about

Presumably, you know what happened to you and what made you think going to small claims court was the way to have justice served. You also know what you want to prove. But that isn’t good enough. You have to be able to tell it to the judge in a way that helps her understand the situation and make a ruling supporting your position.

Rambling on without a focus is a sure way to confuse the judge as to why you’re in court. As is telling the judge about your version of the Thirty Years War with your neighbor when the case is about one incident two months ago. This may be therapeutic for you but is a sleep inducer for the court.

Deciding against using a lawyer

Lawyers counsel people for a living. So why not talk to someone who knows the ins and outs of court before you go there, possibly for the first time in your life? A lawyer can help you understand the issues and help prep you for trial.

Not consulting a lawyer may be a fatal mistake. Although many small claims courts don’t allow you to be represented by counsel during the trial, nothing prevents you from speaking to one before you file your claim.

Refusing to listen

Listening may be more important than speaking. Not listening — especially to court personnel — is a serious mistake. Listening to the clerk helps you properly file your papers. Listening to what is going on in the court with other cases will give you an idea on how things work in real courts. Listening to the judge keeps you on track during the trial.

Listening to what your opponent is saying during the trial rather than speaking over him can help you prevail.

Not making things clear

Not being clear about what you want to prove and how to prove it can cause a good case to go down the tubes. Failing to properly classify your case can have you pursuing the wrong legal theory and presenting evidence that is not only irrelevant but that doesn’t convince the judge your position is correct.

Lacking vital information about the court

Always do your research and know the rules of the small claims court. Reading this book is a good first step, but be sure you know all you need to know about your own local court and what the rules are.

Check to see if they have any publications that explain what goes on in the court. Contact your local bar association or state bar association, as they may have helpful information.

Having the wrong attitude

Attitude is important. Having a confrontational attitude with the clerk, the court personnel, the judge, and the defendant won’t win you any points and can kill a case where credibility is the issue.

If you’re in court, obviously you’re upset and you may well have every reason to be. But losing your head in court won’t win you any battles. Stick to the facts and keep calm.

Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick” applies equally well to your court appearance. Speak confidently and politely but have your evidence — your “big stick” — ready to go.

Underestimating your opponent

You may think the person you’re suing is a first-class jerk — after all, you’re right and she’s wrong. But if you think she’s not going to prepare as much, if not more, for the trial than you, you’ll be the one wearing the dunce cap. Remember you brought the case and you have to prove your claim. In theory the defendant can sit there and do nothing — in reality that never happens. She’ll be ready to counter your claims.

Consider your case from the defendant’s point of view and anticipate the defense she will make. Be prepared to respond intelligently and convincingly to your opponent’s arguments.

Making the wrong monetary decisions

Money is the root of all evil, and if all you focus on is the dollar signs rather than how to get the dollars by understanding the process and preparing your case, money can also be a fatal flaw in your case.

The judge is going to decide the amount of damages you’re entitled to, if any, but you have to prove it to her. Don’t assume the judge knows how to evaluate the monetary amount of your particular damages even if she’s heard hundreds of similar cases. You have to give her proof. Overestimating or underestimating the amount of your loss will leave you less than satisfied.

The amount of money you think you are due cannot be based on how angry or resentful you are. It has to be rooted in facts that you can support and defend. If the judge thinks you’re just out for vengeance or to score a big payday, she’ll be unlikely to reward in your favor.