A strong argument can make or break the outcome of your injury lawsuit in small claims court. Here’s how to effectively present your case.
You only have one shot at arguing your case effectively in small claims court. Your presentation can make the difference between winning and losing.
The judge, and sometimes a jury, will decide what happens to your claim based on what they see and hear from you and the party you’ve sued.
Small claims court is less formal than higher courts, with simpler procedures and relaxed rules of evidence. Still, if you’ve decided to handle your case without an attorney, telling your story in a room full of strangers can be daunting.
You can make a compelling argument to the court, even if you’ve never given a public presentation before. But you must do your homework.
We walk you through the basic steps of presenting your case in small claims court, and offer several “insider” tips to boost your confidence and credibility.
Here’s What Happens in Small Claims Courtrooms
Each state has a different monetary limit for small claims court, and its own set of procedures for filing a case.
Once you’ve filed your small claims lawsuit, the court clerk will schedule a trial date, typically 6 to 8 weeks from the day you filed the case.
The sooner you start working on your presentation, the better. Begin preparing your argument as soon as you file your lawsuit, and start thinking about presenting your case in a courtroom.
Judges Have Different Courtroom Styles
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 ask you to simply stand and present your case. Another might require you to be sworn in by the 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. If you know which judge will preside over your case, try to sit in on a small claims trial with that judge.
Getting a first-hand look at the courtroom styles in your jurisdiction will help you be more comfortable with the trial process.
Tip: Pay attention to the plaintiffs and defendants in a few small claim trials. What made a person believable? Did you spot mistakes to avoid? You may learn some helpful lessons about presenting a case.
Your personal demeanor can have as much impact on what happens in your trial as your presentation of facts. What you wear and how you talk to the judge and others in the courtroom indicates your level of respect for the judicial process.
Common Courtroom Etiquette
In and out of court, a well-mannered individual is simply more believable than a rude, belligerent person. Judges don’t tolerate drama or outbursts in court.
Keep your cool, no matter what happens on the other side of the courtroom.
- Always address the judge as “Your Honor” or “the Court,” as in, “Good morning, your Honor. My name is…”
- Ask permission before walking toward the judge during the proceeding, or you might get in trouble with the bailiff. You can ask the judge, “May I give this packet of evidence to the Court?”
- Stand up when addressing the court.
- Never interrupt the judge.
- The judge can interrupt you. If the judge asks you a question, give a concise answer, like “Yes, Your Honor” or “No, Your Honor.” Don’t launch into the backstory.
- Don’t interrupt anyone else who is speaking in court, no matter what they say. Don’t make noises or faces, either.
- If anyone else interrupts you, ignore them. If they continue to interrupt, they’ll probably be admonished by the judge. That’s good for you, bad for them.
- Be very polite to the other party and their witnesses. Say please, and thank you. Call them by their names, like Ms. or Mr. Taylor, not “The drunk idiot who rear-ended me.”
Tip: Courtroom courtesy can boost your credibility with the judge and jury.
What to Wear for a Court Trial
Appearance does count in court and will help your case before you say a word. For the best appearance:
- Dress neatly and conservatively, no loud patterns, low necklines, or muscle shirts
- Clothes should fit properly, no skin-tight pants or tops that gap
- Shoes should be polished and appropriate, no red stilettos, sandals, or athletic shoes
- Hair and nails should be clean and well-groomed
- Avoid jangly jewelry
Tip: Practice your presentation at least once or twice while wearing your court outfit. “Dress” rehearsals help make you feel more comfortable on your big day.
Preparing Your Small Claims Argument
Small claims trials often move at a brisk pace. You may only have five or ten minutes to explain to the judge why the defendant should be ordered to pay your injury compensation.
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 state why you filed your lawsuit.
Making a Brief Opening Statement
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
- The total amount you’re suing for
- The evidence you will offer in support of your case
Sample: Opening Statement in Dog Bite Case
“Thank you, Your Honor. I’m here today to recover $2,000 in lost wages and medical bills I had to pay after Mr. Smith’s dog bit me.
Because Mr. Smith allowed his dog to run loose, it’s his fault the dog attacked me on May 14 as I walked by on the public sidewalk.
I have a witness, along with medical bills and other evidence to support my claim for financial compensation from Mr. Smith.”
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.
Tip: A critical part of preparing your small claims case is gathering evidence and putting together a trial folder.
With few exceptions, you should present each piece of evidence to the court in chronological order, meaning in the order that follows your story from beginning to end.
Bring the original documents with you to court in case the judge asks for them. Always have at least three sets of copies. One set is for your trial folder.
You’ll need a complete set of document copies for both the judge and the defendant, with a cover sheet listing each document in the order you’ll be mentioning them in your presentation.
Presenting a Strong Case for Injury Compensation
As the plaintiff, you bear the burden of proof to show the defendant was directly to blame for your injuries and should pay for your damages. In most injury cases, that means proving the defendant was negligent.
There are four elements of negligence necessary to prove someone is liable for your injuries. The elements are:
- Duty of Care
- Breached Duty of Care
- Breach Resulted in Harm
- Verifiable Injuries
Using the “elements of negligence” gives you a reliable framework to follow for your court presentation.
Sample Presentation Outline for Dog Bite Case
Introduction: Your Honor, on May 14 of this year, I was walking home from the store on a public sidewalk when I was viciously attacked by Mr. Smith’s Doberman-type dog. I suffered several bites to my left leg that required hospital treatment.
Duty of Care: Mr. Smith had an obligation to keep his dog safely contained behind a fence or on a leash to protect other people from getting hurt. I have a copy of the town ordinance that makes it illegal to let a dog run loose.
Breached Duty of Care: On May 14, Mr. Smith violated the town ordinance by letting his dog run loose, with no fence and no leash. No reasonable person would let a Doberman-type dog loose in a residential neighborhood. Mr. Smith should have known someone could get hurt.
My witness, Ms. Jones, lives across the street from Mr. Smith. She was sitting on her porch the afternoon I was attacked. She witnessed Mr. Smith letting the dog out the front door that day and saw the dog attack me less than an hour later.
I checked with the town’s Animal Control office and found out that in the month leading up to the attack, at least two other neighbors called in to complain about Mr. Smith’s dog running loose. I have a letter from Animal Control confirming the previous complaints.
Breach Resulted in Harm: Because Mr. Smith negligently let his dog run loose, I was attacked and bitten several times. I had done nothing wrong. If not for Mr. Smith negligently letting his dog loose, I would not have been injured by a dog attack.
Verifiable Injuries: Mr. Franklin was driving by when I was attacked. He stopped his car to help me. At the same time, Mr. Smith ran out and pulled his dog off me and dragged it back into his house. Mr. Franklin called 911 and wrapped a towel around my leg until paramedics got there. I was bleeding badly and shaking from the shock.
I brought the pants I was wearing that day to show how blood-soaked my clothes were.
Mr. Franklin couldn’t take off work to be here, so I have his written statement.
Paramedics took me to the hospital where I required IV antibiotics, X-Rays, and a total of 40 stitches to three bite wounds on my leg. You can see in the photographs how my leg looked just before I left the hospital.
Even though I work in an office, I was off work for a week until the swelling went down and I got over the stomach upset caused by the strong antibiotics I had to keep taking.
Please take a look at the doctor’s slip prohibiting me from work, and my medical records describing the pain and swelling from the bites, as well as the side effects of the antibiotics. I also have a statement from my employer listing my lost wages.
Conclusion: Your honor, I was walking on a public sidewalk, minding my own business when I was violently attacked by Mr. Smith’s dog. Mr. Smith intentionally let his dog run loose and should have known someone would eventually get hurt.
Well, I did get hurt because of Mr. Smith’s negligence. I’m respectfully asking for $2,000 to cover my lost wages and medical expenses. I also ask for Mr. Smith to pay my court costs of $75.
Thank you, Your Honor.
You can prepare a similar outline for your case, covering all the important elements needed to prove negligence and fault.
Try not to read your presentation word-for-word. It’s best to have an outline of your main points and the evidence you’ll be presenting to keep you on track while you’re speaking.
Practice your presentation out loud, over and over. The more often you rehearse your presentation, the better.
Practice your presentation in front of family and friends. It’s not easy to give a speech in front of strangers, especially when you’ve got a lot riding on the outcome.
Tip: Practice out loud and practice handling your evidence while you speak. The more you practice, the more confident you’ll be in court.
Finishing Strong: Closing Statements
After both sides have given their presentations and all the witnesses have testified, the judge may ask if you have anything more to say.
Take the opportunity to underscore the main points you made in your presentation. Keep it short, brief, and to the point.
If the defendant made outrageous claims, don’t start another argument or attack their evidence, but make sure your closing argument includes your counter-point.
For example, if Mr. Smith claims you caused your own injuries by teasing his dog, you can emphasize in your closing argument that you did nothing wrong.
Sample Closing Argument for Dog Bite Case
“Your Honor, When Mr. Smith intentionally let his dog loose on May 14, it wasn’t the first time he ignored the town dog ordinance.
I was walking on a public sidewalk with a bag of groceries when I was attacked out of the blue by his dog. As Ms. Jones testified, I did nothing to provoke the attack.
Even when Mr. Smith came out after the attack, the dog continued to snap and snarl while being pulled back to the Smith house. Mr. Franklin wrote in his statement he feared that the dog would attack him also, until the dog was secured inside the house.
I would not have endured multiple painful dog bites, dozens of stitches, and weeks of leg pain, diarrhea, cramps, and nausea if Mr. Smith had been a responsible dog owner. His negligence is the direct cause of my injuries and financial losses.
My leg is permanently scarred from the deep bite wounds I suffered, yet all I’m asking for is reimbursement of my documented medical expenses, lost wages, and what I had to spend in court fees.
Your Honor, please award me $2,075 for my damages and court costs. Thank you.”
Small claims courts are designed to make it easier for individuals to resolve financial claims in court without an attorney.
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 trust the court to make a fair decision.
Tip: While there are a few states, like California, that don’t allow attorneys to come to small claims court with people, in every state you have the right to consult with an attorney before trial.
Talk to an experienced personal injury attorney if you aren’t sure about what happens in small claims court in your jurisdiction, or you’re reluctant to go to court on your own.
Most injury attorneys don’t charge for their initial consultation. It costs nothing to find out what a good attorney can do for you.
Video: Presenting Your Case in Small Claims Court
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