Someone owes you money and you decided to file a lawsuit in a Michigan small claims lawsuit. After you filed the Affidavit and Claim, the court sent you a trial date, Since then, the defendant never offered to pay you, or "settle" the case. You 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 trial. The small claims court will soon 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'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 court. 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.
The trial will be heard by either:
- An attorney-magistrate (or "magistrate), who's a lawyer appointed by the chief judge of the court
- A district court judge
The magistrate or judge will decide the case; there are no jury trials in the Michigan small claims courts.
At trial, the magistrate or judge usually will first request that you and the defendant mediate your claim. If neither of you wants to do that, the case will go to trial. You, the defendant, and all of the witnesses will be sworn in. The trial process itself is simple and straight-forward:
- Usually, the magistrate 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 magistrate 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 magistrate may ask you, the defendant, or any witnesses more questions if she needs to clarify or understand something about the case
- The magistrate will make a judgment. She can do this either immediately after everyone has testified, or if she needs more time to think about it (called "taking it under advisement"), the decision will be mailed to you, usually within a few days of trial
The evidence you should bring to trial to support your claims or defenses includes:
- Documents such as contracts, notes, leases, receipts, guarantees, warranties, 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 magistrate that the defendant 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 magistrate or 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 magistrate. Also, don't speak directly to the other party unless the magistrate gives you permission to do so
Failure to Appear
If you fail to appear at trial, the judge will dismiss your claim. Likewise, your case will be dismissed if neither you nor defendant shows up. If the defendant doesn't appear, you win automatically. The magistrate 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 magistrate that your claim against the defendant is valid.
Before trial or even on the trial date, either you or the defendant may ask that the case be heard in the regular district court. This is called "removal." To have the case taken out of the small claims court, you need to complete a form called Demand for Removal and file it with the clerk. If the defendant does this the court will notify you. If the case is removed, you and the defendant have the right to be represented by an attorney. And, the party who loses the case is usually ordered to pay the other party's court costs and attorney fees.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Why do you think the defendant had my small claims case removed to the regular district court? How much will you charge to represent me in the suit?
- I had a family emergency on the day of trial and I didn't make it to the courthouse. The magistrate 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?