When you go to trial, you start your personal injury case all over again from the beginning. The court (judge and possibly a jury) sees and hears your evidence for the first time. You only have one shot to effectively present your case from start to finish.
You’ll build your case step by step, starting with the injury event, continuing with each of your points and evidence, and ending with your closing argument. Small claims trials move at a brisk pace, and winning often means making the most effective argument in the shortest amount of time.
You’re the plaintiff, and the plaintiff always goes first at trial. Although courts work differently all over the country, the judge will probably ask you to make a statement about why you filed your lawsuit. Be prepared to make a brief, but clear opening statement covering the following points:
- When and how you were injured
- Why the defendant is liable for your damages
- Your monetary losses
- The total amount you’re suing for
- The evidence you will offer in support of your case
The small claims court process doesn’t require you to present evidence during your opening statement. You can refer to it, but don’t start passing it out. You’ll offer evidence after your opening statement, when the judge tells you to proceed with your case.
The amount you ask for in your opening statement should be no higher than the court’s maximum jurisdictional limit. The amount can be greater than any settlement demand you previously made, just make sure you support your position with enough evidence for the court to base a verdict on.
For example, you could ask for more compensation if after you sent your demand letter, your lost wages continued to accrue, or if it was necessary to seek additional medical treatment or therapy.
When you refer to a document in your testimony (police report, medical record, etc.), always offer the original to the judge. Be sure it’s not covered by plastic or laminated. It’s also a good idea to offer a copy to the defendant. The judge will probably ask if the defendant has seen the document anyway, so offering it will make a good impression on the court.
With few exceptions, you should present each piece of evidence to the court in chronological order. Whenever possible, it’s best to have the original documents. They have immediate credibility and are preferred by the court. Originals are often clearer than copies and preempt requests for further verification.
As you introduce evidence during the trial, you’re simultaneously laying the groundwork for your closing argument. By the time you finish your side of the case, you must have presented enough evidence to prove your monetary losses and the pain and suffering you endured.
Credibility and Relevance
The evidence you show the court must be relevant and credible. If the evidence doesn’t directly relate to the case, there’s a good chance it won’t be admitted by the judge, or if it is, it may be discounted by the court in deliberations. Don’t confuse the court. Stick to evidence that directly supports the facts.
Remember, you’re always telling your story. That story began at the time you were injured and ends with you standing in front of the court that day. It includes all you’ve endured in between. A believable story requires credible and relevant evidence backing up every point.
Many trial attorneys believe if they haven’t persuaded the jury to find in their client’s favor by the end of the evidence, then what they say in their closing argument won’t matter. This belief has some merit.
Although you should never underestimate the importance of a closing statement, it’s generally true that if you haven’t made your case by the close of testimony, there’s little chance you’ll change the court’s mind with some final words. It may happen in the movies, but rarely in real life. Still, you need to prepare a strong closing argument.
In your closing statement, go through the evidence one piece at a time in the order you introduced it. In small claims actions, you’re within your rights to pick up any piece of evidence already admitted and show it to the judge or jury once again, reminding them of its importance and reemphasizing its value.
During your final argument, you don’t need to attack the defendant’s evidence. Doing so may backfire. It’s better to let the court sort through the evidence themselves. Judges and juries take their jobs seriously, and they all want to make the right decision. If you’ve presented a strong case, you can leave the rest to the court.
Courts Are Different
Small claims judges differ in the way they run their courtrooms. Some judges are relaxed. Others, especially in larger cities, are more formal. For example, one judge might simply ask you to stand and present your case. Another might require you to be sworn in by the court bailiff, and testify under oath from the witness stand.
Once you know where your case will be heard, go to the courthouse and observe other small claims actions. You can sit in the courtroom as a spectator. This will help you become more comfortable with the trial process, and you’ll know what to expect. You may also learn a few lessons about how to best present your case.
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