You filed a lawsuit in a Louisiana small claims court because someone owes you money or won't return some personal property that belongs to you. When you filed the Statement of Claim and Citation, the court clerk scheduled a trial date. The defendant (the person you sued) never offered to pay or return the property to you. You may have tried mediation -- where a neutral third party tried to get you both to agree to a settlement -- but that didn't work.
Now it's time for the trial, where a judge or justice of the peace will settle the matter and decide if you win or lose. It's the day you've been waiting for. So, it's a good idea for you know how the trial process works and what you need to do to help make sure you win.
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 you filed your Statement. 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 Louisiana small claims courts, when you show up at trial, the judge may send or "refer" your case to an arbitrator, a neutral third party who will decide the case. Arbitrators are usually attorneys, and their decisions are just as "binding" or legally enforceable as decisions by judges.
If the case is not sent to arbitration, it will be heard either by a judge, if the case was filed in a City Court, or by a justice of the peace, if it was filed in a parish Justice of the Peace Court. The trial process itself is simple and straight-forward:
- The court clerk will "call" your case by announcing the docket number of your case and/or your and the defendant's names. Then, you, the defendant, and all of the witnesses will be sworn
- 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 decision, which is called a "judgment." He may do this immediately after seeing and hearing all of the evidence, or he can take the case "under advisement," which means he needs more time to think about it. If that happens 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
- 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 or is holding property that rightfully belongs to you. Likewise, if you're the defendant and you filed a counterclaim, you have to prove that the plaintiff owes you money or has your property.
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 and that a copy of your Statement of Claim and Citation was delivered to (or "served on") the defendant properly. Likewise, the defendant may be given a default judgment against you if he filed a counterclaim and you don'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?