What if you believe you don't owe the plaintiff a dime and you want to actively contest the case filed against you? To fight back, you must show up in court on the day stated in the papers served on you, unless you get the case delayed (continued) to a later date. In the great majority of states, a defendant need not file any papers with the court clerk; showing up ready to defend yourself is enough. However, a written response must be filed in a few states, including Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Oregon, South Carolina (oral response is also okay), Vermont (oral response is also okay), and West Virginia.
To defend most types of cases successfully you'll want to make a convincing oral presentation and back it up with as much evidence as possible. Here is a good approach.
Analyze your opponent's case. To do this, you will normally want to focus on any facts that show you are not legally responsible. Next, if you conclude that the plaintiff may have a winning case, focus on whether he has asked for the right dollar amount. For example, if you can convince a judge that you owe only a couple hundred, not several thousand, dollars you will have won a substantial victory.
Develop evidence. The key to winning a small claims case is to convince the judge of your version of the facts. To do this, you need to back up your oral presentation. The best way to accomplish this is with eyewitnesses (if you are lucky enough to have any) and expert witnesses who can lend credence to your position (for instance, a mechanic who agrees the plaintiff ruined your engine). (For help, see Nolo's article Offering Witness Testimony in Small Claims Court.) In addition, you will want to gather any documentary evidence, such as contracts, canceled checks, or photos that support your position.
Practice your court presentation. After the plaintiff presents her case, it's your turn. Be prepared to make an incisive, logical presentation of why the plaintiff should receive little or nothing. And don't become flustered if the judge interrupts to ask questions -- many judges will do this repeatedly. Once you have your arguments thought out, practice them in front of a friend or family member until you are thoroughly comfortable. One trick here is not to repeat uncontested facts presented by the plaintiff, but to immediately focus on why the plaintiff's case is misguided. (For some guidance, see Presenting Your Testimony and Evidence in Small Claims Court.)
File a "Claim of Defendant"
Finally, you may believe that its the plaintiff -- not you -- who is at fault and you want to sue the plaintiff. To assert your own claim against the plaintiff, you should promptly file a Claim of Defendant (called a counterclaim in many states) in small claims court for up to the small claims court maximum. Dont wait until after the plaintiffs case is resolved to bring your own lawsuit. In many states, you must file a counterclaim or else lose your right to bring your claim against the plaintiff. If you wish to countersue the plaintiff for more money than the small claims maximum, you may have the case transferred to the appropriate formal court.
Assuming your case stays in small claims court, both your claim and the plaintiff's will be heard together. You should prepare and present your case just as you would if you had filed first -- that is, understand the legal basics that underlie your case, make a practical and convincing oral presentation, and back it up with as much hard evidence as you can find.
For more preparing evidence and witnesses and making a presentation in court, see Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by attorney Ralph Warner. You can also visit Nolo's Lawyer Directory to locate an attorney in your area, as well as view information about each lawyer's experience, education, and fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law.
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