Someone owes you money, or has something that belongs to you, and so you decided to file a small claims lawsuit to get it. After you filed the Complaint, the court clerk gave you and the defendant, the person you sued, a date to "appear" in court. Since then, the defendant never offered to "settle" the case by paying you or giving the property. 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 looks as though the case has to go to trial or a "hearing" and let a Kentucky small claims court decide if you win or lose. It's the day you've been waiting for. So, before you show up at the courthouse, you should have an idea about how the trial process works and what you can do to help you win the case.
Mechanics of the Trial or Hearing
Both you and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for the hearing on the date and at the time scheduled by the court clerk when you filed your Complaint. 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 give them a ride to the courthouse just to make sure they get to the right place and are on time.
In some Kentucky 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:
- The court clerk will "call" your case, usually by its docket number and by your and the defendant's names. You, the defendant, and any witnesses will be sworn in
- 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 you shouldn't win. 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 decide who wins, which is called a "judgment." She may 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. If that happens the judge you and the defendant will be notified by mail about the decision
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 or of the property you want returned to you
- 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 to the judge that he owes you money or has your property.
You should follow these general suggestions for courtroom conduct:
- Be on time for your hearing, and dress as nicely as you can. This shows the judge that you're taking the hearing 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 may 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 your Complaint. 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?