Offering Witness Testimony in Small Claims Court

Gather and prepare your evidence in advance of going to small claims court.

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Whether you are a plaintiff (the person suing) or the defendant (the person being sued), the key is to realize that it's what you bring with you to court to back up your story -- not what you say -- that determines whether you'll win or lose. This makes sense if you understand that the judge has no idea who you are and whether your oral (spoken) testimony is reliable. After all, your opponent is likely to claim that the "true story" is extremely different from your version.

In short, your chances of winning will greatly increase if you carefully collect and prepare your evidence. Depending on the facts of your case, a few of the evidentiary tools you can use to convince the judge you are right include:

  • eyewitnesses
  • photographs
  • diagrams (for example, of the scene of a car accident)
  • letters from experts
  • advertisements falsely hyping a product or service, and
  • written contracts.

Eyewitness Letters

Letters from eyewitnesses should first state who the witness is and then establish how, where, and when she saw (heard, smelled, or touched) important events or evidence. Here is a sample.

presiding judge
Small Claims Court
Kansas City, Kansas

Re: John Swift vs. Peter Petrakos
Small Claims Case No. 11478

Your Honor:

My name is Victor Van Cleve. I work at Racafrax Engineering in Kansas City, Kansas, as a mechanical engineer, and I am 43 years old.

On September 15, 20xx, I witnessed an auto accident a little after 7:30 a.m., involving John Swift and Peter Petrakos. I was about 50 feet away from the accident, standing at the intersection where the accident occurred, and I could see what happened clearly. I did not know either Mr. Swift or Mr. Petrakos before the accident.

I saw Mr. Petrakos' Toyota, which was heading north on South Dora, go through a red light and hit Mr. Swift's blue van, which was proceeding east on West 7th, well inside the 25 MPH speed limit. I assume the light was green facing Mr. Swift on West 7th because I was watching the red light on South Dora, waiting for it to change to green so that I could cross the street.

Sincerely,

Victor Van Cleve

Expert Witness Letters

Letters from expert witnesses -- such as the car mechanic who examined your car's engine or a remodeling contractor who inspected your poorly remodeled kitchen -- should first establish the expertise of the witness and then comment on the specifics of your situation. Here's an example:

Gail McClosky
47 Penrod Street
Helena, Montana
Sept. 30, 20__

Judge
Small Claims Division
Helena, Montana

Re: James Dills vs. R & B Construction
Small Claims Case No. 11478

Dear Judge:

I am a fully licensed contractor with 20 years' experience here in Helena (Contractor's License (4021B)). For the last ten years I've run my own five-person contracting company specializing in building enclosures and buildings to be used to house horses and other large animals. I enclose a resume outlining my specialized training and experience in this field.

On April 23, 20__, I was asked by James Dills to inspect several new stalls he had built in the main barn of his Lazy T Ranch by R&B Construction.

In my opinion these stalls are markedly below normal industry standards for three reasons.

  1. They are too small for the animals intended to be kept in them. [ Continue with details.]
  2. Walls and doors are built of plywood too thin to safely contain an agitated animal. [ Continue with details.]
  3. Construction is so rough in several regards as to pose a danger of injury to an animal intended to be kept there. [ Continue with details.]

In conclusion, I believe the stalls are so poorly constructed they can't reasonably be upgraded to provide safe habitable housing for horses. Were they mine, I would rip them out and start over.

Sincerely,

Gail McClosky

Although in-person testimony is usually best, letters can be effective if witnesses can't come to court. Most small claims courts will accept letters from witnesses, but check your local rules to be sure letters are allowed.

For the detailed information, tips and strategies you need to sue someone successfully, or put up a winning defense, in small claims court, get Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).

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