Have you ever been sued? I have. The good news - I won! The why's are at this moment not pertinent - well any longer as it's been over a year since the lawsuit. I have to say it is one of the most stressful things I have ever gone through. It robs you of sleep and concentration. A lawsuit can cause you to lose many things but one thing it should not do is take away your joy in the important things in life. Through the whole process I found that in difficult times family, the small things, and good friends are indispensable. The dark side may have cookies but the bright side leaves you happier long-term.
This post is not to encourage you to be sued just to find happiness in difficult times. No, I am writing this as a cathartic exercise for myself and as a how-to to winning if you find yourself a defendant in small claims court.
1. Seek legal advice. All lawyers will tell you the same thing - only a fool represents himself. However, not all lawyers are willing to take every case that comes their way. This is not because they may have scruples or because they don't. No. Some cases are thought too ridiculous to be taken seriously (such was my case) or there's not enough money in it for them. Think about it. If you are being sued for $200 owed to the plaintiff, would you take 30% of that for I don't know 1 week of work? A good lawyer will however, at least provide a free consultation - or charge - and advice you on how to proceed and how to approach the matter. That was my case.
2. Do not take the law suit personally. This is not a reflection on who you are . Remember that unless there truly was a breach of contract or there are legal reasons for the law suit, then most likely it is hurt feelings on the part of the plaintiff. If there is proof of wrong-doing then the court will handle that portion and it will probably not end up in small claims but a larger civil suit or criminal case if the matter is a truly serious offense. Otherwise, small claims may be the solution to rental disputes, property damage, or other monetary disputes - not emotional disputes.
3. Prepare. I cannot stress this enough. Being prepared is the most important portion of the process. Don't "think" about what you will say. WRITE down what you will say and what questions you will ask. Have witnesses. If you have emails or written statements have them notarized but preferably bring the witness to court. Part of being prepared is practicing. Practice how you will present your statement to the judge, be succinct and brief when presenting testimony. Avoid little stories that you think add value to your testimony, they really have no value before the judge. If someone failed to say hello, it is not part of the law suit. Either practice in front of the mirror or with friends/family. This will help you express your anger or sadness prior to the court hearing. Again being prepared is the difference between losing and winning.
4. Stay calm and be respectful. Emotions are volatile when being accused of something you didn't do or feel is unjust. Remember, you have prepared, stick to your statement and do not deviate from that. This will help you stay calm and focused. You may not like the plaintiff very much (probably due to the lawsuit) but losing your temper will not help. Also remember to be courteous to the judge, remember to thank the judge because on that day you have not just wasted your time but theirs as well. Respectful also means being presentable. You may not like the situation but showing up in your gym clothing or party clothes will not win you any fans - the judge especially will not like this. Tuck in your shirt, iron your clothing, and definitely bathe prior to the hearing.
5. This is real life, not court TV. I used to be a huge fan of all the court shows until my lawsuit. In these shows you see a smart judge who doles out life lessons and legal advice to the plaintiff and defendant, although entertaining, real life is a far cry from that. The judge is there to listen to both parties and make a decision based on facts - not emotions. You will likely not receive a verdict immediately, the judge will more likely set another date for the verdict. No you will not receive advice, you do not receive sympathy, no one yells at you, there are no cameras, and what you get is the opportunity to defend yourself in a civil manner. Do not walk into that court with bravado as council, walk in with intelligence and preferably a lawyer by your side.
6. Avoid being sued if at all possible! I think this is the best possible way to win - avoid law suits! How? First of all make sure that all monetary issues are in writing, Roommates? Have a contract that specifies everything, from cleaning to the sharing of utensils to don't-use-my-toothpaste to food. Nothing is too insignificant to cover in a roommate contract. If you are a landlord, be aware of your rights and duties. If you are loaning money, write out a contract specifying the amount and payment schedule and within what time frame repayment is to be completed. Always keep copies of these documents and have documentation of anything that could be used to protect yourself from possible law suits. No one needs the stress of being sued, believe it or not you most definitely have better things to do than spend hours preparing for court and attending court hearings.
Life is a many splendor-ed thing but sometimes it will throw you a curve ball and hits you upside the head. And remember even if you win, the plaintiff or defendant (don't know your position) always has the right to appeal; hope they don't do that but be prepared for the possibility. If you are in this situation - then good luck! If you aren't - bully for you and stay out of it!