Someone owes you money or is holding your personal property, and so you decided that the only way to get it is to file a small claims lawsuit. When you filed the Notice of Claim, the court clerk gave you a trial date. The defendant 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.
It looks like your suit will have to go to trial where an Indiana small claims court will decide if you win or lose. It's the day you've been waiting for. Before you get to the courthouse, though, you should have an idea of how the trial process works and what you need to do to help make sure you're on the winning end.
Both you and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for trial on the date and at the time scheduled by the court clerk when filed your Notice of Claim. 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 to drive them to the courthouse.
In some Indiana small claims courts the trial will be heard by a judge, while in other courts it may be heard by a "referee." She's an experienced lawyer who's been appointed by the court to help with the small claims cases. A referee has all the powers of a judge. The trial process itself is simple and straightforward:
- Your case will be "called" by the court clerk when it's time for your case to be heard
- You, the defendant and all of the witnesses will be sworn-in
- The judge will ask you to explain your case. This is when you'll present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.), and your witnesses will 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 she shouldn't have to pay you. The defendant will present her evidence and witnesses at this time. And, you can ask her and her 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, which simply means she'll decide who wins. She may do this either immediately after everyone has testified, and you may get a copy of the judgment that day or it may be mailed to you later. Sometimes, the judge takes the case "under advisement," which means she needs more time to think about it. If that happens, the judge will mail a copy of the judgment later, usually within one two weeks after the trial
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
- Photographs of the personal property that the defendant refuses to return to you, or written estimates of value of the property and/or the cost of replacing it
- Any letters, e-mail messages, or other correspondence between you and the other party
As the plaintiff, you have the burden of proof. That means you have to convince the judge that the defendant owes you money. Of course, if the defendant filed a counterclaim against you, she has to prove that you owe her money, or are refusing to return property that belongs to her.
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 the 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 and that the defendant was properly served with (or given a copy of) your Notice of Claim. Likewise, the defendant may be given a default judgment against you if she filed a counterclaim and you didn't show up at trial to defend it.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do I have to appear at trail 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?