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UT Witnesses at a Small Claims Trial

You're involved in a lawsuit that's been filed in the Utah small claims court, and now it's time to go trial. The judge is about to decide who wins. What can you do to help make sure you're on the winning side? Witnesses can mean the difference between winning and losing a small claims trial.

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 his 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, make sure you talk to your witnesses before you show up for trial. You want to make sure they support your version of the story. And you need to make sure that your witnesses 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 the defendant's car, but she may not be able to say how fast either of you were driving or if you stopped completely at a stop sign 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 a witnesses refuses your request to come to trial and testify, you can ask the clerk of the district or justice court area where the suit was filed to subpoena the witness, requiring her to come to trial and testify. To subpoena a witness, you'll have to fill out a subpoena form and arrange for it to be delivered to (or "served" on) the witness by a sheriff, constable, or a process server.

If you didn't subpoena a witness and she doesn't show up for trial, you'll have to go ahead with the trial without the witness. In Utah, a small claims judge usually won't grant you a continuance - that is, postpone the trial - so that you can get the witness to show up. If you find out before trial that a witness can't make the trial date - such as because of an emergency or illness - the judge may give you a continuance. 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 could be fined by the court or even put in jail for a few days.

Expert Witnesses

An expert witness is someone with education, training, skills or experience that makes her 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" can understand them better.

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 her testimony. And, you can't use a subpoena to force an expert witness to testify.

Testifying without Being There

Generally, witnesses must be at trial and give live testimony, so a Utah small claims court usually won't let you to use a witness's written statement to support your claim. However, you can use written statements like repair bids, appraisals, repair bills, and medical bills to prove the amount of your claim. These kinds of statements have to be itemized, signed, and written on the original letterhead of the person who wrote it.

Giving Testimony

In most cases, the plaintiff gives her evidence first, including testimony from her witnesses. The defendant goes second. During the trial, the judge usually asks the witnesses questions. Also, the parties can question each 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 them 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 got subpoenaed to testify as a witness in a small claims suit involving 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?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm

- Start the process with our Utah Small Claims Worksheet
- Next in the Small Claims series: After Small Claims Court in Utah
- Success In Small Claims Court
- Small Claims Court Terms
- Defending a Small Claims Court Case
- Visit our Small Claims Court Forum for more help

Related Web Links

- Utah Courts
- Utah Small Claims Court
- Utah Court Contact Information by District and County

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