If you get sued in small claims court, you should evaluate the options that you may have to defend the case. Sometimes a defendant will not have a defense, which means that they do not need to contest the case. This will result in a default judgment being entered for the plaintiff in the amount that they are seeking, as well as court costs. If the plaintiff has a strong case, but you do not think that they are entitled to the full amount that they are seeking, you may be able to work out a compromise with the plaintiff outside court. You can offer a settlement amount, and then the plaintiff can make a counteroffer. The size of the eventual settlement relative to the plaintiff’s original demand will depend on the strength of their case.
Some small claims courts require mediation before the case goes to a judge.
Mediation is another way to resolve a small claims case without either side going through the time and expense of court proceedings. This also can result in a settlement for a lower amount than the demand. If the parties need to resolve additional disputed issues, they can address these issues in mediation as well. The small claims court clerk can provide you with guidance on how to pursue mediation.
Since many small claims plaintiffs are relatively unsophisticated, they may make mistakes in filing their case or serving the defendant with the complaint. For example, they might file the papers in the wrong court or serve the defendant at the wrong location. You should make sure to bring a procedural issue to the court’s attention as soon as possible so that the court does not enter a default judgment based on your failure to respond to the claim. This would require you to ask the court to vacate the default judgment, which is a more complicated process.
A defendant who is sued in small claims court in a state where they do not live likely will have a defense based on lack of jurisdiction in that state. There are some exceptions, but you probably can get the case dismissed on this basis.
In most states, you do not need to file a formal answer to the plaintiff’s complaint, as you would in an ordinary civil lawsuit. Instead, you will need to come to the court on the assigned day with your evidence. You can attack the plaintiff’s ability to prove the elements of their claim, the amount of damages that they are seeking, or both. In addition to presenting your own testimony about the events, you can introduce testimony from witnesses and expert witnesses. You also should compile and present documents that support your position. Carefully preparing your presentation in advance can reap rewards by making you more comfortable in the courtroom. You should be ready to answer questions by the judge and to address any weaknesses in your argument.
Claim of Defendant
Sometimes the party who is at fault in a small claims case is the plaintiff rather than the defendant. A Claim of Defendant is similar to a counterclaim in an ordinary civil lawsuit. You should file this paperwork before the plaintiff’s case is heard. If you are seeking more money than the small claims court limit, you can transfer the case to a regular court in your state. Otherwise, the court will review the plaintiff’s case and the Claim of Defendant at the same time.
Sometimes the parties reach an agreement on the total amount owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, but the defendant does not have enough resources to pay the full amount at once. Depending on the state, they may be able to arrange for installment payments. If you are in this situation, you would need to explain to the judge in person or in writing why you cannot pay the full amount in a single payment.
Burden of Proof Changes
You will have the burden of proof regarding a Claim of Defendant, so you should make sure to present strong evidence to support your position.