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NC Small Claims Trials

You filed a small claims lawsuit because someone owes you money or has some property that belongs to you, and want it. When you filed the Complaint, the court clerk gave you a trial date. The person you sued (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.

So, now it looks as though a North Carolina small claims court, or "magistrate court," will have to decide the case. It's a big day, the one you've been waiting for. It's a good idea, then, for you know how the trial process works and what you need to do to help make sure you win.

Trial Mechanics

Both you and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for trial on the date and at the time scheduled by the superior 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, photographs or a lease if you're a landlord or tenant. 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.

In many North Carolina 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. Sometimes, the magistrate, the "judge" who will decide the case, may "refer" or order your case to mediation. If you're asked to mediate but one or both of you refuse to, or if you can't come to agreement after mediation, the case will go to trial. Likewise, if you're ordered to mediate and you can't reach a settlement, the case will go back to magistrate for a trial. If you reach a settlement through mediation, the agreement is enforceable like any other contract. That means you can file a lawsuit if the other person breaks or "breaches" the agreement.

If the case does go to trial, it's a simple and straightforward process:

  • 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 magistrate will ask you to explain your case first. At this time, you'll also present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.), and your witnesses will testify, too. Usually, the magistrate will ask you and your witnesses questions
  • The defendant is then asked to explain why he shouldn't have to pay you or return the property to you. He'll present his evidence and witnesses at this time
  • The magistrate may ask you, the defendant, or any witnesses more questions if she needs to clarify or understand something about the case
  • With the magistrate's permission, you'll be given the chance to respond to each other's statements, ask each other questions, and question each other's witnesses
  • The magistrate will decide who wins; the decision is called the "judgment." She may do this either immediately after everyone has testified, or she can take the case "under consideration" or "under advisement," which means she needs more time to think about it. If that happens you and the defendant will be notified by mail about the decision by mail later, usually within 10 days after the trial

Evidence

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 magistrate that the defendant owes you money or has property that rightfully belongs to you. Likewise, if you're the defendant and you filed a "counterclaim" against the plaintiff, you have to prove that he owes you money or has your property.

Courtroom Conduct

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 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 neither you nor defendant show up at trial, the case will be dismissed. If you fail to appear at trial, the magistrate will dismiss your claim. If the defendant doesn't appear at trial, you may 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. 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 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?
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