Small claims court provides a place where you can recover up to $5,000 (plus court costs) in an informal setting, and without a lawyer. A previous e-tip, " How to Initiate a Case in Small Claims Court ," explained how to file a claim and get a court date set. The following steps guide you through the trial.
How to prepare your case
It is important to prepare your case properly because you have the burden of proving that you should recover money due to the defendant's acts or failure to act. You also must prove the amount of your damages, so be sure that you concentrate on facts that establish how much money the defendant owes you and why.
- Write down a clear and concise statement of the facts. Check all relevant dates and compare your memory of events to any supporting documents you have.
- Gather all documentation that you feel will have a bearing on the dispute and that you want to bring to trial. If you are not sure if you should take a document to court, take it just in case. In addition, most courts require that you bring two copies of all relevant evidence.
- Determine if there are any witnesses you can take to court to help authenticate your complaint. Once you have your witnesses, ask them to relate their story to you as they would before the judge. This is to prevent any surprises in court. If a witness is important to your claim but will not voluntarily come to court, then you have the right to subpoena him or her.
- If a subpoena is necessary, go back to the clerk as soon as you have a trial date and ask him or her to issue the subpoena and help guide you through the process. If the witness to be subpoenaed has any documents you need produced, tell the clerk about them.
- Make an outline of what you want to say when you testify. Sometimes people forget to say things that are important to their case in a trial atmosphere. It might help to check off each item of your outline as you cover it
- List the questions you expect to ask each witness.
What to expect at trial
- Procedures vary from court to court. Most judges will briefly explain the procedure to be used in your trial. As always, if you have questions, ask the judge or clerk.
- Once the case is set for trial, the judge will accept only legal excuses for postponement. In addition, if you arrive at trial and find out that you are not ready, the judge may dismiss your case.
- You will have the first chance to tell your story. Go through the outline you previously prepared, demonstrating any applicable evidence. If you have documents, have someone testify about what each document means.
- Call your witnesses one at a time to testify. Do not make statements to the witnesses, but ask them questions. Know the answers your witness will give you ahead of time, and do not argue with the other side's witnesses. If you think the defendant or the defendant's witnesses are not telling the truth, ask questions that would expose this fact to the judge.
- You will have an opportunity to tell your story without being interrupted. When you are finished, the defendant will have a chance to ask you and your witnesses questions. The judge also may ask you or your witnesses questions.
- Be polite and courteous at all times. Also, try to be brief and to the point.
If you have a jury trial
- You can question potential jurors to decide which of them you do not wish to be on the jury.
- You may disqualify three potential jurors for any reason (this is called a "peremptory challenge").
- You may disqualify other potential jurors if you show the judge that there is some legal fact that disqualifies a person from serving as a juror. Use your common sense to determine potential legal reasons. For example, if you discover that one of the potential jurors is an employee of the insurance company you are suing, let the judge know.
What to do if you win
After the judge or jury has heard the facts from both sides, the outcome and damages will be determined. If the defendant does not appear in court at the appointed time and has received proper notice of the trial, the judge will declare you the winner and award any amount you can prove plus court costs.
If you win at small claims court, the judge will enter a "judgment" in your favor. Unfortunately, this does not automatically get you your monetary damages. Sometimes the most difficult part of small claims court is getting your money. The majority of defendants will simply pay you after you win. If this is not so in your case, however, you must take legal steps to try to enforce your judgment.
The most common legal devices available to obtain a monetary judgment are:
- An abstract of judgment,
- A writ of garnishment,
- A writ of execution, and
- A turn-over order.
NOTICE: The Office of the General Counsel of the Texas Medical Association provides this information with the express understanding that 1) no attorney-client relationship exists, 2) neither TMA nor its attorneys are engaged in providing legal advice, and 3) the information is of a general character. You should not rely on this information when dealing with personal legal matters; rather legal advice from retained legal counsel should be sought.
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