Suppose you are sued in small claims court and you want to actively fight the case filed against you. To do this, file a response to the plaintiff's claim if required in your state. Then show up in court on the date stated in the papers served on you, ready to present your side of the story.
Some defendants will not only want to dispute the plaintiff's claim but will also want to sue the plaintiff back. To assert your own claim against the plaintiff, you will need to file a defendant's claim (sometimes called a counterclaim).
Arguing Your Case
If 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.
Before you even think about the merits of the plaintiff's case, your first job is to check to be sure the plaintiff has brought it within the time allowed by the statute of limitations. If not, tell the judge at the beginning of your presentation and request that the plaintiff's case be dismissed.
To successfully present your defense, you'll want to be prepared to make a well-organized, convincing oral statement, backed up with as much evidence as possible. Good case presentation strategies, including how to present witnesses, estimates, diagrams, and other evidence apply both to defendants and plaintiffs. If the plaintiff has asked for too much money, you'll also want to be sure you tell the judge exactly why it is too much.
Take apart your opponent's case. To do this, you will normally want to focus on any facts that show you are not legally liable. Make sure you know what the plaintiff must prove for all the common types of small claims cases and see whether you can disprove any key points. If after doing this you conclude the plaintiff arguably does have a winning case, next consider whether he or she has asked for the right dollar amount. Obviously, if you can convince a judge that you only owe a couple of hundred, not several thousand, dollars, you will have won a substantial victory.
Example 1: The plaintiff sues you for a breach of contract. Assuming the facts support your position, you might present evidence that no contract existed in the first place or that, even if a contract did exist, the plaintiff violated its terms so thoroughly that you were justified in considering it void. And even if you have to admit that you broke a valid contract, you might claim the plaintiff is asking for far too much money.
Example 2: You are sued by someone claiming your negligent conduct resulted in his property being damaged (as would be the case in a fender bender). To successfully defend, you want to convince the court that you were not negligent (careless), or, if you were, that the plaintiff was more negligent. And even if the judge decides that the accident was your fault, you might want to claim that the plaintiff paid far more than was necessary to have the car fixed.
Gather evidence. The key to winning (or not losing) in small claims court is very often to convince the judge that your version of the facts is correct. To do this, you'll normally need to back up your oral presentation with convincing evidence. One good approach is to present the testimony of an eyewitness (if you are lucky enough to have one) or an expert witness who agrees with your position (for example, a mechanic who can explain how the plaintiff damaged your engine). In addition, you will want to show the judge any available documentary evidence such as letters, photos, and opinions of experts–or sometimes even damaged property–that back up your version of events. For example, if you are a computer repair person sued by someone who claims you ruined his or her PC, you may want to get a written opinion from another repair shop that the current problem with the computer has nothing to do with the defect you fixed. In addition, it would make sense to present any advertisements or trade pricing data that tend to show that the plaintiff is placing an inflated value on the ruined but very old computer. And don't forget that you can also bring along physical evidence. Suppose, for example, you are sued for nonpayment on a handmade ceramic tea service that you commissioned from the plaintiff. If you can bring that teapot into court and show the judge that it doesn't pour properly, your defense may be in the bag.
Be prepared to make a convincing courtroom presentation. The plaintiff gets to talk first. Patiently and quietly wait until it's your turn. When the plaintiff is done, be prepared to make a short and logical presentation of why the plaintiff should receive little or nothing. As mentioned several times in this book, once you have your arguments thought out, it is an extremely good idea to practice exactly what you plan to say in front of a friend or family member until it is perfect. One trick to getting and keeping the judge's attention is not to repeat uncontested facts presented by the plaintiff; instead, immediately focus on why the plaintiff's case is misguided.
EXAMPLE: Tom, the landlord, listens patiently as Evie, the tenant, spends five minutes presenting a rambling, sometimes incorrect history of their landlord-tenant relationship as an introduction to her main point that she should have gotten her security deposit back because she left the rental unit clean and undamaged. When it's finally Tom's turn, he ignores Evie's inconsequential mistakes. Instead, he focuses on the exact point of the dispute by saying, "Your Honor, the key to my defense is that the plaintiff left the rental at 127 Spring Street in a dirty and damaged condition. I have pictures to demonstrate this and a reliable witness to back it up. But first I would like to briefly list the three worst problems."