Just because someone files an action against you doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong. To fight back, you must show up in court on the day stated in the papers served on you, unless you get the case continued (delayed) to a later date. To defend most types of cases successfully, you'll want to respond to the complaint, show up for the trial, and make a convincing oral presentation backed with as much evidence as possible. Here is a systematic approach.
To do this, you will typically 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.
Example. Assume the plaintiff sues you for a breach of contract in small claims court. If the facts support your position, you might claim that no contract existed in the first place. Or that even if it did, the plaintiff violated its terms so thoroughly that you were justified in considering it void. On the other hand, if you have to admit that you broke a valid contract, you can claim the plaintiff is asking for far too much money in damages.
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 with proof. 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). Also, you will want to gather any documentary evidence, such as contracts, canceled checks, or photos that support your position.
Example. If you are a computer repair person sued by someone who claims you ruined her PC, you might want to get a written opinion from another repair shop that the current problem with the computer has nothing to do with what you fixed. Also, you might want to show the judge advertisements and trade pricing data to show that the plaintiff is placing an inflated value on her used computer.
Find out more in Presenting Your Testimony and Evidence in Small Claims Court.
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.
Example. Tom, a landlord, listens patiently as Evie, his tenant, spends five minutes explaining the history of their landlord/tenant relations before claiming she should have gotten her security deposit back because she left the rental unit clean and undamaged. When it's Tom's turn, he ignores several small discrepancies in Evie's long rendition of her rental history. 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 and that I had to pay $600 to a cleaning service and $400 to a handyman to clean it up and make essential repairs. I have pictures to demonstrate this and a reliable witness to back it up. But first, I would like to list the worst problems."
For more information, see Your Day in Small Claims Court: What to Expect.
Finally, if you believe that it’s the plaintiff who is at fault and you want to sue 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 amount. Don’t wait until after the plaintiff's case is resolved to bring your 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’ll have to move for the case to be 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 Cara O’Neill.
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