How to Prove to Small Claims Judge That Home Contractor Messed Up

Photos, copies of correspondence, and affidavits from witnesses are among the types of evidence that a small claims judge will want to see if you're suing a home contractor over substandard work.

Question

I am going to small claims court to sue my home contractor, who botched the renovation of my kitchen. She was supposed to install new appliances after retiling the floor and painting the walls. We agreed on the materials and timetable. Not only did the work take two months longer than promised, but she ordered the wrong appliances, left paint blotches all over, and grouted the tiles unevenly. As I prepare for trial, what sorts of evidence should I bring?

Answer

Evidence is crucial to convincing a judge that you were wronged and deserve compensation. In addition to your oral presentation, physical evidence will be viewed as much more objective and credible. Emails, photographs, contracts and samples can tell a story that goes beyond your (justifiable) frustration.

Obviously, you should choose evidence that is favorable to your position. For example, dramatic photos of trouble spots in your kitchen would show the judge how careless your contractor was. An email from her promising to complete the job on a certain date would also demonstrate what your expectations were.

You might also gather affidavits from witnesses or experts. An affidavit is a statement by an individual, usually sworn under oath and notarized, which states certain facts.

For example, you could include an affidavit from a neighbor who witnessed your contractor break through your wall. This is called a fact affidavit. Or you could include an expert affidavit from another local contractor stating that she examined the work of your contractor and found it to be below the standards of professional care.

In "regular" court, there are all sorts of formal rules for presenting, authenticating, and admitting evidence. These rules are normally relaxed in small claims court, though the exact rules depend on the laws in your state. The courts are intentionally designed for use by people like you, without assistance from an attorney.

Nevertheless, you should ask your county clerk about the rules or procedures for having physical evidence considered by the court. For example, the court might require that it's submitted a certain number of days ahead of trial, or that your contractor be provided with advance copies.

Follow whatever rules the court has regarding the submission of evidence. Typically, it's smart to come to your trial with neat binders showing your proof. The binders would elegantly separate each email or photograph or document with a tab, making it easy for the court to flip through.

It is also common to arrive with three identical binders: One for you, one for the judge, and one for your adversary. The binder could also include other documents related to the case, such as your initial complaint/claim form, and your contractor's answer.

Creating a trial binder like this serves two purposes. First, it puts all of this objective evidence in front of the judge in an organized way, so as to see the "story" from your perspective. Second, it makes you appear to be highly organized.

This might seem silly, but judges deal with dozens of litigants every week. Many are messy, or keep no records at all. Well-crafted trial binders send a signal that you are a responsible person, not the type to lie or exaggerate. These sorts of impressions count.

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