Small Claims Court. So, do I need a lawyer to sue this guy?

The muscles cringe, the strain sets in, and the resentment, scorn, and frustration boil over whenever someone hears this answer from a lawyer to what seems like a simple question:  “Maybe.”

You can go it alone, or bring a lawyer.

But, believe me, the lawyer is not trying to get you to pull your hair out.  The quick answer is “yes,” anyone can represent themselves in Small Claims Court.  However, going it alone might be the worst decision depending on the circumstances you are facing.   For instance, who is going to be on the other side of the battle?  If you sue a person or company that shows up with a lawyer, then you’re likely outmatched.  It may have nothing to do with the merits of your case.  The truth will prevail, but you have to play by a set of rules in order to properly present that proof to the judge.  This is where the professional guidance of an attorney can make all the difference.  The biggest part is just being ready.

Small Claims cases involve matters where $3,000 or less is in dispute and are filed in the Small Claims Division of the Franklin County Municipal Court if you live in my neck of the woods.  If you want to pick a bigger fight, you can claim up to $15,000 in the General Division of the Municipal Court.  Anything higher than that, and it’s Common Pleas Court time, my friend.  We’ll look to a practical example to illustrate the small claims process:

The Claim

Q:  My car was towed and the towing company scratched my driver’s side door.  It’s going to cost me $1,200 to fix the door and the towing company is refusing to pay.  A lawyer will probably cost that much, so can I sue them by myself?

A:  Yes, you can sue them by yourself.  But, I can almost guarantee that the towing company has been sued before in that very court.  So you better be ready because they will be.  Here are some tips on the process.

1. File the Complaint. The Complaint gets the lawsuit started and you have to pay a small filing fee.  You can go to the clerk’s office and fill out all the paperwork right there and they provide a guide to help you get started that you can view here.  Keep your allegations straightforward and to the point.  No one cares how upset this has made you, so don’t write it.  Stick to the facts.  The clerk will serve the complaint on the towing company.  Once that is done, the Court sets a trial date.  It’s time for you to take the stage.

2. Preparation is key. You are the plaintiff and have the burden to prove your case.  You also get to present your case first at trial. Telling a disjointed story about the events and bouncing around from one topic to another will sink you.  Make a list of all the facts you remember, every person you talked to, and the details of what you observed when you picked up your car.  Divide your facts into sections that fit chronologically and give it a practice run.  How you present yourself to the judge is just as important as what you are presenting to the judge.

3. First person is the best person. The best way to win is to have eye witnesses testify.  If it’s your car and you picked it up the next day and noticed the scratch, then you better be there to testify.  I once saw a father lose a very similar case in small claims because his 20 year old son was the one driving the car the day it was towed.  His son also picked up the car the next day and noticed the scratch.  It was Dad’s car so Dad went to court and didn’t bring his son.  Dad lost the case partly because his son was not there to tell the story of how the scratch got on the car and how the towing company responded.  Dad’s recount of the events was inadmissible hearsay.

4. The proof is in the paper. Bring every scrap of paper that relates to this case to court with you.  Have extra copies to share with the judge and the other side.  Bring the receipt from the towing company when you picked up the car.  Bring the estimate for the repair to the door.  Better yet, bring the receipt where you already had the door repaired.  Do you have any pictures of the door showing the scratch?  Bring them.  Do you have any pictures of the door taken before the door was scratched?  Bring them too!

5.  Calm, cool, and collected. Present your case professionally and take the emotional side out of the equation.  You may think the tow truck driver is a jerk, so let him look like a jerk to the judge.  Don’t sigh, groan, or roll your eyes when the towing company tells its version of the story.  Instead, appear as though you were expecting their version.   Observe the three C’s and you will get the all-important fourth C: credibility with the judge.

These pointers should decrease your anxiety about the small claims process.  It’s never a bad thing to consult with a lawyer on your specific case before you head to the courthouse.  If you find yourself in Franklin County, Ohio, more information about the small claims process can be found here.