Someone owes you money and you decided to file a small claims lawsuit. After you filed the Claim and Notice of Claim, the defendant never offered to pay you, or "settle" the case. Maybe you tried mediation, where a neutral third party tried to get you both to agree to a compromise, but that didn't work. Instead, the defendant demanded a hearing or trial.
Now, it's time to get ready for the trial when the Oregon small claims court, or "people's court," decides 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 clerk of the justice or circuit court after the defendant demanded a hearing. 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.
If you filed suit in the small claims division of the circuit court, the trial will be heard by a judge. If filed in a justice court's small claim decision, a justice of the peace will try the case. In most instances, you and the defendant will be offered the chance to mediate the claim. If you both don't want to mediate, or if you fail to come to an agreement during mediation, the case will go trial that very same day. In some courts, you will be required to mediate the claim. Ask the clerk of the court where you filed the suit if mediation is required or "mandatory."
If your case goes to trial or a hearing, you, the defendant, and all of the witnesses will be sworn in. The trial process itself is simple and straight-forward:
- Usually, 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. She can 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 will make a decision and mail it to you and the defendant soon after the trial. The judgment will say how much, if anything, you won (or the defendant won on a counterclaim)
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.
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 the hearing, the case will be dismissed (thrown out). If you fail to appear at trial, the judge will dismiss your claim. If the defendant doesn't appear at trial, you can ask for a "default judgment," which will award 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. 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. Also, in Oregon, the "prevailing" or winning party is entitled to a money award on top of the money awarded to you in the judgment and your costs.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I can't find the original contract I signed when I hired the defendant to repair my roof. Is it OK if I have a carbon copy of it?
- 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?