Someone owes you money and you decided to file a small claims lawsuit. After you filed the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial, the court clerk gave you a trial date. The defendant - the person you sued - never offered to pay you, or "settle" the case. Maybe you even tried mediation - where a neutral third party tried to get you both to agree to a compromise - but that didn't work.
Now it's time for the Alabama small claims court to settle matter and finally decide if you win or lose. It's a big day. So, before you get to the courthouse, you need to have a good idea about how the trial process works and what you can do to help yourself win.
Both you and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for trial on the date and at the time scheduled by the district court clerk when filed your Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial. Be on time and be ready. Get to the courthouse at least one hour before the scheduled time, just in case the court is moving ahead of schedule or there's a problem with your paperwork.
Bring everything you've gathered to prove your case, like receipts and photographs. And, make sure your witnesses know where the court is, when they need to be there and what testimony they'll give (what they need to say). If possible, offer them a ride to the courthouse with you.
In many Alabama small claims courts, you and the defendant may be asked if you're willing to have the case go to a mediator to try and work out a settlement. If you both don't agree to mediation, or if you agree to it but you can't settle your dispute, the case will go to trial before a judge. The trial process itself is simple and straightforward. Your case will be "called" by the court clerk, meaning the trial is about to begin. You, the defendant, and all of the witnesses will be sworn in, and then:
- Usually, the judge will ask you to explain your case. At this time, you'll also present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.), and your witnesses should testify, too. The defendant can ask you and your witnesses questions, and the judge often asks questions as well
- The defendant is then asked to explain why he shouldn't have to pay you. The defendant will present his evidence and witnesses at this time. And, you can ask him and his witnesses questions
- The judge may ask you, the defendant or any witnesses more questions if she needs to clarify or understand something about the case
- The judge will make a "judgment," that is, decide who wins. She can do this either immediately after everyone has testified, or she can take the case "under consideration," which means she needs more time to think about it. Usually, no matter when the judge actually makes the decision, you and the defendant will get a copy of the judgment by mail
The evidence you should bring to trial to support your claims or defenses includes:
- Documents such as contracts, notes, leases, receipts, work orders, bids and estimates, police reports and the like
- The damaged goods you're suing over, or photographs of the goods
- Photographs or illustrations that explain what happened, such as where a car accident happened
- Any letters, e-mail messages, or other correspondence between you and the other party
As plaintiff, you have the burden of proof. That means you have to convince the judge that the defendant owes you money. Likewise, if you're the defendant and you filed a "counterclaim" against the plaintiff, you have to prove that he owes you money.
You should follow these general suggestions for courtroom conduct:
- Be on time for your trial, and dress as nicely as you can. This shows the judge that you're taking the trial seriously
- Stick to the issues in dispute when presenting your case
- Be polite at all times and don't interrupt the judge. Also, don't speak directly to the other party unless the judge gives you permission to do so
Failure to Appear
If neither you nor defendant show up at trial, the case will be dismissed. If you fail to appear at trial, the judge will dismiss your claim. If the defendant doesn't appear at trial, you win automatically. The judge will enter a judgment (called a "default judgment") awarding you the amount of your claim, plus your court costs or filing fees. In the case of a default, you still need to show the judge that your claim against the defendant is valid. Likewise, the defendant may be given a default judgment against you if he filed a counterclaim and you didn't show up at trial to defend it.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have to appear at trial even if I hire you to represent me in the small claims suit?
- I was in a car accident on my way to trial and I didn't make it in time. The judge dismissed my case. What can I do?
- A witness I need for my trial won't answer my phone calls or letters. Is there anyway I can make her show up at trial?