The small claims court process can be stressful. Careful preparation helps eliminate stress and gives you the confidence to make a good presentation. Although small claims trials are more relaxed than those in higher courts, they are still presided over by a judge, and sometimes a jury (both referred to as the “Court”).
Don’t underestimate how nerve-racking it can be to present your case in front of a judge and a room full of spectators. Being well prepared can mean the difference between a smooth, effective presentation and bumbling, unconvincing one.
While representing yourself is suitable for small claims actions, if your case finds itself in any higher court, retain a personal injury attorney immediately. The rules and procedures in higher court are much more complicated.
Preparing for Trial
When you go to trial, you start your claim over again from the beginning. It’s as if your previous negotiations with the insurance company never took place. All pre-trial offers are set aside. Whether the adjuster offered you $100 or $10,000 is irrelevant. Any details of your settlement negotiations are inadmissible.
There’s no substitute for careful preparation. Preparing for trial means knowing exactly what you’re going to say in court and presenting your case clearly. Leave the legalisms and quoting legal statutes to the lawyers in higher courts. Consider what you’d want to see and hear if you were the judge or jury at your trial.
In small claims court, winning means making the best argument in the shortest amount of time. It’s a great idea to practice with a family member or a friend beforehand. Think of your case as a story you want to tell. It begins the moment you were injured and ends with your last medical treatment.
Start with a written checklist of the points you want to make. Go through them one at a time in chronological order. Be sure to cover the following:
- The Injury Event
Begin with the circumstances leading up to the injury. Explain what you were doing just before you were injured, and then describe the event itself.
This could be something like, “I was on my way to work at about eight in the morning. While waiting at a red traffic light, suddenly I felt an intense impact from behind. The defendant failed to stop and ran into the back of my car. My neck and back were abruptly jolted, and I immediately felt severe pain.”
This type of dialogue also applies to the facts for a slip and fall, dog attack, or any other type of injury event.
- The Defendant’s Reaction
Describe what the defendant did or said. It could be something helpful to your case, such as, “When we got out of our cars the defendant said ‘I’m sorry, I was putting on make-up in the mirror. I just didn’t see you.'”
If there were witnesses to the accident, know exactly who they are and what they’re going to say. Know their full names – don’t use nicknames or other familiar descriptions. Make sure your witnesses are prepared and their testimony is consistent.
- Physical Evidence
You must have command over your evidence. If it’s a police report, know what any diagrams and codes mean. Make sure you know the difference between car one, car two, etc. If it’s a medical report, know how to pronounce the doctors’ names, and understand your diagnosis and prognosis.
Be ready to discuss medical terms as they apply to your injury. If you want to introduce a chiropractor’s narrative into evidence, then understand what a C-5 vertebrae is, or what disk herniation means. The more familiar you are with your injuries and treatment, the more effective your presentation will be.
Prepare your photographs and practice how you will clearly link them to the circumstances of your case and the accident that caused your injury. Avoid using more than one or two photographs of the same subject.
- Expenses and Lost Wages
Be sure your employer’s wage verification letter is clearly written. It must state the time you lost from work and the exact corresponding wages. Also verify the dates on any receipts for out-of-pocket expenses, including things like medications, bandages, crutches, etc. Leave nothing to interpretation.
- Pain and Suffering
You must show you suffered extensively from the injury. Relate how the injury and treatment caused you pain and limited your normal daily functioning. Explain how you had no choice but to seek treatment as a result of the accident.
You can use the “But for” legal premise to confirm liability. You can say something like, “But for the defendant’s speeding, I would not have been injured.” Or, “But for the pool of water the store left on the floor, I would not have slipped and broken my arm.”
You’re not going to court to be reimbursed for only your monetary losses. You’re also there because the defendant caused you unnecessary suffering, and you should be compensated for that suffering. Be prepared to emotionally tell the court how you felt before the injury and during treatment, and how the ordeal has affected your life.
Your Trial Folder
The way you present your evidence is crucial. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being in trial with your evidence sticking out of your pockets or strewn about in front of you. There are no dress rehearsals or do-overs in small claims court. You’ll have one chance to present your case – make it count.
One of the most effective ways to prepare for trial is by creating a trial folder. A well prepared trial folder classifies each piece of physical evidence you’ll be offering at trial, making it quick and easy to access. The less distracted you are searching for evidence, the more you can focus on your presentation.
Use an accordion folder with enough pockets to accommodate each piece of evidence. You can purchase one for a few dollars at any office supply store. Gather all your evidence, including the police or incident report, photographs, witness statements, medical records and bills, expense receipts, lost wages, etc. Classify each piece of evidence into labeled sections in the folder.
A proper folder can save you at trial. If the insurance company sent an attorney to defend their insured, you can bet she’ll have her own trial folder. You want to be on a level playing field. It’s also an excellent way to impress the court. It shows your attention to detail, professionalism, and determination.
Each pocket in your trial folder should contain the original document and at least three copies. Once you’ve separated the evidence by section, you’ll need to make two written lists:
- An ordered list of your evidence. For each section in your folder, make a list of all the items in that section. This list is your document map. It will quickly lead you to any items you need to reference during trial.
- A chronological list. This one should list the evidence according to the order in which you plan to introduce it at trial, and where it’s located in your folder.
Separating your documents in the folder and creating the two corresponding lists is a foolproof way of getting to your evidence quickly and in the right order. A small claims trial moves at a brisk pace, and your case will likely be one of many the court hears that day. If you’re thoroughly prepared and have complete command over your evidence, you won’t have to worry about the pace.
Most great trial lawyers are also terrific actors. They know how to convey to a jury the pain and suffering their client endured. You must be sincere and express as truthfully as you can how your condition negatively affected your life.
Explain how you couldn’t walk or lift your arm or leg because of the severe pain from the injury. Or how your children needed you, but you couldn’t get out of bed because the pain was so bad. Tell them how the pain medication made you sick. Or how even with treatment, you still had extreme pain for days or weeks, and it kept you from sleeping for many nights.
Take some time before your trial date and visit the courtroom where your small claims case will be heard. Just sitting through a few trials will give you a tremendous advantage over the defendant. Becoming familiar with the setting will relieve much of your anxiety about the procedures, timing, and the overall process.
You and your witnesses should be dressed appropriately for court. Your personal presentation is almost as important as your case presentation. Dressing professionally shows respect for the judge and jury – no t-shirts, shorts or sandals. If you’re a woman, wear a dress or business suit. A man should wear a collared shirt and tie.
Small claims cases may be less formal than higher courts, but the process still demands respect from its participants. Remember, in trial, everything matters.
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