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MS Witnesses at Small Claims Court

You're part of a lawsuit that's been filed in a Mississippi small claims court (or "people's court"), and you have to prepare for the trial - the day when a judge decide who wins. What can you do to help make sure you're on the winning side? Witnesses can have a big impact on what the judge or jury thinks about the case, and so they can mean the difference between winning and losing.

Whether you're the one who filed the suit (the "plaintiff") or the person being sued (the "defendant"), you're allowed to bring witnesses with you help support your version of the case. Basically, witnesses are people who saw or heard something about the case. Or, they're "experts" who help explain something technical about a claim involved in the case.

Choose Wisely

Your witnesses need to have something meaningful to offer to the case. Otherwise, you run the risk of aggravating the judge for wasting her time and the court's time. So, be certain that your witnesses have personal knowledge about your case - they saw or heard something, like saw the car accident you're suing over. Or, if you need an expert, make sure he's qualified to talk about the case. For example, a mechanic is qualified to talk about faulty car repairs involved in a suit, but your friend who's a car salesmen probably isn't a good choice for such testimony.

Also, talk to your witnesses before you show up for trial. You want to make sure that they'll support your version of the story and remember important facts in the same way as you do. If a potential witness doesn't help your case, don't use him.

For example, a witness may have seen the collision between your car and defendant's car, but he may not be able to say if either or both of you stopped at stop sign or how fast either of you were driving just before the accident. You may not want this witness to testify.

Subpoena

A subpoena is a court order commanding someone to appear at court at a certain date and time and give testimony about something. Sometimes, the subpoena requires the person to bring documents with him to the courthouse when the documents are important for the case. Bills, receipts and leases are good examples of documents that may be subpoenaed.

If you need a witness to come to court but the witness will not come, you can ask the clerk of the justice court to subpoena the witness, requiring her to come to trial and testify. To subpoena a witness, you'll have to get a subpoena form from the clerk, and you need to arrange for it to be delivered to (or "served on") the witness. This usually is done by the local constable, sheriff, or someone selected by the court.

You have to pay a fee for subpoenaing a witness, as well as for having it served. The court clerk can tell you the amount of these fees, as well as help you with the process of having the subpoena issued.

If you don't subpoena a witness and he doesn't show up for trial, you may have to go ahead with the trial without him. A judge may or may not give you a "continuance," that is, postpone the trial so that you can get the witness to show up. You'll have to explain why the witness is so important to your case and why you didn't subpoena him, though.

If you find out before trial that a witness can't make the trial date, such as because of an emergency or illness, you may ask the judge for a continuance. Normally, the other party has to agree to the postponement, however.

If you get a subpoena, you should contact the person who sent it to you or his attorney for additional information about it. The subpoena itself should include the necessary contact information. Don't ignore a subpoena! Anyone who doesn't obey a subpoena can be held in "contempt of court." This means you've violated a court order; you could be fined by the court or even put in jail for a few days.

Expert Witnesses

An expert witness is someone whose education, training, skills or experience makes him more knowledgeable about a particular subject than the average person. Expert witnesses are used to explain technical or complicated matters so that ordinary people or "laypersons," like the judge or jury, can understand them better. For example, if you're suing over faulty car repairs, you may need a mechanic to testify because the judge or jury may not have a good understanding of how car engines work.

Examples of possible expert witnesses are:

  • Automobile mechanics and body workers
  • Construction professionals, like carpenters, roofers and general contractors
  • Doctors, such as your family physician or chiropractor
  • Computer or information technology (IT) professionals

In most cases you'll have to pay an expert for his testimony. And, you can't use a subpoena to force an expert witness to testify.

Testifying without Being There

It's always best to have a witness testify live and in-court. That way, the judge and the other party can question the witness and decide for themselves if the witness is reliable and truthful. However, if for some reason a witness can't make it to court, the judge may or may not let you use a written statement given by a witness. The judge will consider whether the statement is trustworthy, reliable and relevant to your case. If so, he may let you use it. It will help if the statement is in the form of an affidavit. This simply means that the statement was made under oath or was "notarized."

The judge also may or may not let a witness testify by telephone, such as when a witness lives out-of-state. Reliability, trustworthiness and the importance of the testimony will guide the judge's decision on the matter.

Before trial, you should ask the court clerk about how the judges of the justice court where you filed suit usually handle requests to let witnesses testify without being present at trial.

Giving Testimony

In most cases, the plaintiff will give her evidence first, including testimony from her witnesses. The defendant will go second. During the trial, the judge usually asks the witnesses questions, and each party can question the other's witnesses.

It's important that you don't interrupt the witnesses, even if you think the witness is wrong or even lying. Make notes about the discrepancies. Later, you can either ask the witness about the discrepancy or use your own witnesses to set the matter straight.

You may interrupt a witness, however, when you have a valid objection to what he's saying. An "objection" means that the witness is testifying about something that he shouldn't be. Good examples are when a witness:

  • Doesn't have direct, personal knowledge about what he's testifying about. For example, a passenger in car who didn't actually see the collision is asked to testify about how fast the defendant's car was moving
  • Relies on hearsay, which is when the witness testifies about something he heard someone say and that person isn't a witness at trial. For example, when a witness is asked to testify about what a passerby said just after a car accident

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I was sued in small claims and at trial, one of my witnesses changed his story and the plaintiff won. Is there anything I can do?
  • I was subpoenaed to testify as a witness in a small claims suit involving a slip and fall personal injury claim. I'll have to take an unpaid day off work to be at trial. Do I really have to go? Can I make the person who sent the subpoena pay my lost wages for the day?
  • Should I bring "character" witnesses to trial to testify about my good nature and how I take care of my personal responsibilities?
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