In this blog, I’ll be discussing what you should do if you’re the plaintiff. Hopefully, you have read Part I, gone to the PA Courts website at www.aopc.org, found the location of your local district court, paid your fee, and have received a notice of your hearing date. If you haven’t, go back and read Part I before proceeding.
The plaintiff is the person with something to prove. You have filed a complaint saying that someone or some company owes you money, so you better be ready to prove it. If all you have is your word, you might as well stay home. One person’s story, without anything to back it up, isn’t very convincing.
Documents win cases. If there are relevant documents, bring them and have extra copies for the judge and the defendant. Highlight the sections of the documents you feel support your case. For example, if a contractor promised to do something in a contract and failed to do it, highlight the language in the contract. Don’t make the judge go look for it.
Photographs of any damages to personal property or real property are essential. If the tenant left your rental home in shambles, show the judge! As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Organization is key. Remember, a district court judge may have dozens of other cases to decide, so you want to get to the point and present your evidence in an orderly fashion the judge is likely to remember. Generally, try to present your case in chronological order perhaps with even a chart of key dates or events for the judge and a calculation showing how you added up the total damages. Tell a story. Make it interesting.
Let’s try a simple contract case. You hire ABC contractors to install a new kitchen floor for $3000. After installation, you notice the floor is buckling in several places. ABC refuses to make repairs. You either pay or obtain an estimate of $4000 to remove the existing flooring and reinstall new flooring. (Remember, $8,000 is the limit in PA for district court. Anything higher, and you will want to consult an attorney.) To prove your case, you should present at a minimum (1) a copy of your contract with ABC contractors, (2) photographs of the damaged flooring, and (3) a copy of the estimate for repairs hopefully identifying the defects in ABC contractor’s work. It can be that simple. Documents. Pictures. Organization. You hired someone to do a project (document). They messed up (pictures). Now it will cost you more to fix (more documents). A story presented in a logical sequence (organization).
Other evidence that can be helpful are letters or other writings by the parties, testimony of witnesses who personally heard or saw something relevant to the case, or even the damaged property or other physical evidence. However, in most district court cases, documents and pictures are sufficient.
Because there is no discovery in small claims, you won’t know what the defendant may offer as evidence until you get to court, but you can try to anticipate. In our contract case, for example, ABC contractors may have its own pictures of the finished project, so make sure yours are dated. Or ABC may claim the buckling occurred after the dishwasher overflowed and is not a result of faulty installation or flooring. Anticipate their arguments and prepare to refute them.
Every case is different. Not all cases are straightforward like the contract case I used as an example. It is well worth the consultation fee to sit down and talk it over with an attorney before you try it on your own. And, finally, be open to a settlement. The judge will usually require the parties to talk before he hears the case and will warn you that one of the parties is not going to be happy with his or her decision. Going home with some money in your pocket is better than getting nothing for your efforts.