I am suing my home contractor, who botched the renovation of my kitchen. She was supposed to install brand new appliances after retiling the floor and painting the walls. We agreed on the supplies she would use and the timetable. Not only did the work take two months longer than promised, but she left my kitchen a disaster! She ordered the wrong appliances, used blotchy paint, and left the tiles jagged and rough. As I prepare for trial, what sorts of evidence should I bring with me?
Evidence is crucially important to convincing a judge of your position. In addition to your oral presentation, evidence is much more objective. Emails, photographs, contracts and samples can tell a story that goes beyond your mere frustration.
Obviously, you should choose evidence that is favorable to your position. For example, a dramatic picture of jagged tiles scattered around your kitchen floor would show the judge how utterly careless your contractor was. An email from her promising to complete the job on a certain date would also demonstrate exactly what your expectations were.
You might also 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 contractor in your community 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 formalistic rules for the presentation, authentication, and admission of evidence. Generally speaking, these rules are somewhat relaxed in small claims court. The courts are intentionally designed for use without 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 the book.
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 any 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 of person to lie or exaggerate. These sorts of impressions count.