Preparation pays off when arguing your personal injury case in small claims court. Here’s how to increase your chances of getting fair compensation.
When you’ve run through all the options for settling your injury claim, you might decide to file a lawsuit in small claims court. It’s a good alternative to a full-blown lawsuit, especially when handling your own claim.
Although small claims trials are more relaxed than higher courts, the burden remains on you to prove the other party’s responsibility for your losses.
You’ll only have a short time to lay out the facts of your case and convince the court to rule in your favor. If you aren’t used to public speaking, 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 an awkward, unconvincing one.
Here’s where you can learn how small claims courts work, and how to prepare before you stand up in front of the judge.
How Does Small Claims Court Work?
There are pros and cons to small claims court when it comes to personal injury cases. These courts are specifically designed to help people resolve relatively small financial disputes without an attorney.
On the downside, each state has monetary limits for small claims court and might not provide any allowance for pain and suffering.
It’s a good idea to talk to a personal injury attorney about your claim before taking legal action. Most injury attorneys don’t charge for their initial consultation.
Your small claims lawsuit begins when you file a complaint form with the court. Your complaint, also called a petition, states the reason for your lawsuit, how much money you are seeking, and whom you believe should pay for your damages.
Because you are filing the lawsuit, you are the plaintiff. The person or business you are suing becomes the defendant.
Once the defendant is notified of the lawsuit, the court clerk will set a date for your small claims trial.
If the defendant is insured, their insurance company will likely hire an attorney to represent the defendant in court, even if the insurance company previously denied your injury claim.
The Plaintiff Bears the Burden of Proof
It’s up to you to convince the court that the defendant should pay the amount you’ve asked for in the complaint. In legal terms, you bear the “burden of proof” to show the other person is at fault for your injuries.
That means you must convince the judge that the defendant ought to pay because they were negligent.
You need to cover all four elements of negligence at trial:
- Duty of Care: The defendant had a duty to avoid causing harm to others
- Breach of Duty: The defendant breached their duty by doing something wrong, or failing to do what any reasonable person would do in the same situation
- Cause: The defendant’s breach of duty was the proximate cause of your injuries
- Damages: You have verified injuries, supported by medical bills and records
When you go to trial, you start your claim over again from the beginning. It doesn’t matter if the defendant or their insurance company made prior settlement offers or flatly denied your claim.
What matters is making a convincing argument to the court, backed up by evidence of the defendant’s negligence and proof of your injuries.
Preparing Your Case for Trial
There’s no substitute for careful preparation. Preparing for trial means knowing what you’re going to say in court and presenting your case with confidence.
You don’t have to worry about using fancy legal terms or quoting statutes in small claims court. Even if the defendant brings a lawyer, the judge will listen carefully to everything you say.
In small claims court, winning means making the best argument in the shortest amount of time. Think of your case as a story you want to tell. It begins the moment you were injured and ended with your last medical treatment.
Plan What You’re Going to Say
Start with a written checklist of the points you want to make, and what you’re going to say. Go through your story in order.
Injury Event: Begin with the circumstances leading up to the injury. Explain what you were doing just before you were injured, and then describe how the injury occurred.
You might say something like, “I was on my way to work at about eight in the morning. While waiting at a red light, I suddenly felt a severe impact from behind. The defendant failed to stop and slammed into the back of my car. My neck and back were abruptly jolted, and I immediately felt severe pain.”
Defendant at the Scene: Describe what the defendant did or said when you were injured. 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 adjusting the stereo and didn’t see you in time to stop.'”
Witnesses: If you will be bringing witnesses to court, refer to them by their proper names, not nicknames or other familiar descriptions. Make sure your witnesses are prepared, and their testimony is consistent. You can also bring written statements, signed and dated by the witness, but in-person witnesses are best.
Pain and Suffering: Even if the small claims court in your state won’t allow compensation for pain and suffering, you can still talk about your experience in your testimony. 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” argument to help prove the defendant’s 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.”
Summary of Expenses: Small claims court cases are money disputes. The easier you make it for the judge to see the total amount of your monetary losses, the better for your case. Never hand over a stack of bills and receipts without a summary page.
Create a neat page with an itemized list of each expense, with a total at the bottom. The total should be the amount you asked for in the complaint. During your presentation, speak about the costs you incurred (without going into too much detail) that should be compensated by the defendant.
Court Costs: Create a separate list itemizing your court costs. If there is room, you can have this list on your expense summary page. In some courts, you can ask that the defendant pay your court costs if you win.
Case Summary: After both sides have presented their arguments, the judge could ask for closing statements. Here’s your chance to underscore the facts of your case and why you should be awarded the full amount of compensation you’ve requested.
Gathering Your Trial Evidence
You must have command over your evidence. If it’s a police report, know what any diagrams and codes mean. If it’s a medical report, know how to pronounce the doctors’ names, and understand your diagnosis and prognosis.
Be ready to use the correct medical terms as they apply to your injury. Study the medical reports and doctor’s notes you will use as evidence of your injuries. 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 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.
Be sure your employer’s wage verification letter details the time you lost from work, and the wages and overtime you lost.
Check the dates on any receipts for out-of-pocket expenses like medications, bandages, or crutches. Don’t write on the original receipts, but you can make copies and put notes in the margins of the copy for clarification.
Preparing a Trial Folder
The way you organize your evidence is crucial. 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 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.
You can use an accordion folder with enough pockets to accommodate each category of your evidence, or you can use a large three-ring binder with pocket-style dividers.
Categories of documents might include:
- Police or Incident reports
- Witness Statements
- Medical Records
- Wage Statements
- Bills and Receipts
A proper folder can save you at trial. If the insurance company sends an attorney to defend their insured, you can bet the attorney will have a 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.
Your trial folder should contain the original document and several copies. Each section should have an index listing the documents in that section. For example, the medical records section might have:
- Emergency room records
- X-ray reports
- Family doctor’s notes
- Physical therapy records.
You also need a list of evidence in the order you plan to introduce it at trial, and where it’s located in your folder. Separating your documents by category and creating these two corresponding lists is a foolproof way of getting to your evidence quickly and in the right order.
Make at least three copies of each document you plan to use at trial. Keep the originals separate but bring them with you.
You need three complete sets of copies for:
- Your use at trial (in your trial folder)
- The Judge
- The Defendant
A professional way to provide copies for the judge and defendant is to put the documents in the order you plan to introduce them at trial, with a cover page listing the documents in that 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 command over your evidence, you’ll look and feel confident and competent.
Preparing an Effective Presentation
As the plaintiff, you will present first. You’ll have five to ten minutes to tell your story and present your evidence. Give the judge and the defendant each a set of your document copies before you begin to speak.
Introduce yourself, then give your presentation. If the defendant tries to interrupt or has an outburst, ignore it. When you’re finished speaking, thank the judge for listening.
When it’s the defendants turn to speak, don’t react or comment. Act professional.
When both sides finish, the judge may allow you to give a closing statement. Be ready to give a short and compelling summary of your case.
Describe Your losses
You don’t have to be an experienced public speaker to give a good presentation in small claims court. You only have to know the facts of your case, be sincere, and express as truthfully as you can how your injuries 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. Describe 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.
Whatever you describe, back it up with evidence. For example, when you talk about not being able to care for your child, reference the doctor’s note that restricted you from bending or lifting.
Practicing Your Presentation
Practice your presentation out loud, over and over. Your practice should include reaching for the document that supports what you’re saying and pretending to hold it up for the judge to see.
You can’t have too much practice. Ask friends or family members to listen to your presentation and case summary. It won’t be so strange to speak in front of the court if you’ve already practiced in front of people.
Dress appropriately for court. Your personal presentation is almost as important as your case presentation. Professional-looking attire shows respect for the judge and the judicial process.
Have at least one “dress rehearsal” wearing your court clothes while delivering your testimony and case summary. The more you practice, the more at ease you will be when you stand up in court.
Take 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. Being familiar with the setting will relieve much of your anxiety about the procedures, timing, and the overall process.
Keep in mind that anytime before your court date, you can always consult with an experienced personal injury attorney. It costs nothing to find out how a good attorney can help your case.
Video: Tips for Preparing Your Small Claims Case
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