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Small Claims, Big Stakes: What Else?

Aside from filing the complaint and getting it served on the defendant, is there anything else I need to do before my court date?
As every Boy and Girl Scout knows, "be prepared:"

  • Organize the main points you want to make.
  • Read what you wrote in your complaint, and be able to explain it.
  • Be clear on damages that you're seeking, and why the defendant owes you that amount.
  • Organize documents too (receipts, cancelled checks, record of telephone calls, etc.) so you won't fumble when retrieving them to back up a point.
  • Line up witnesses with direct knowledge of the facts or "expert" witnesses (a mechanic, for example), and have a pretty good idea what they'll say.
  • If you need help persuading a witness to appear, have the clerk's office prepare a subpoena for him/her.

What can I expect when I get to court?
Check in with the clerk's office. When your case is called, the bailiff will swear you in. The plaintiff (that's you!) presents his/her case first, after which the defendant or the judge can ask questions about what you've said.

Attorney Ed Snyder's advice: "Be as brief as possible. If you can't tell your story in under two minutes, you're in trouble."

Snyder points out that many people feel that "If the judge hears my story", justice will follow. They don't realize this judge may have heard a similar story 100 times.

When testimony is finished, you normally won't get an instant decision. The judge will issue a written decision, which the clerk's office will mail to you.

  • A decision in your favor is called a "judgment."
  • If the other side doesn't appear in court (despite having notice of the case), the judge can award you a "default judgment", one awarded to the party present when the other doesn't show.

Any advice from the bench?
Judge Williams G. Kroncke, who hears cases in the small claims division of Sylvania, Ohio, Municipal Court, stresses the importance of being organized.

"Any paperwork or documents you want the Court to look at," said Judge Kroncke, "should be organized in sequential order. And bring a copy for the other party."

Judge Kroncke stresses courtroom basics:

  • Direct your remarks to the Judge, not the other party;
  • Speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard;
  • Maintain eye contact with the Judge; and
  • Use exhibits wisely.

"If you offer a video Presentation, make sure it's five minutes or less, and notify the clerk ahead of time," said Judge Kroncke. No time for Titanic-length films.

Next: What if you win?