Field Trip to Small Claims Court

Yesterday was the day when our small claims case would have been heard, had we not requested a dismissal, as I explained in an earlier post. But since I had my calendar blocked out anyway, I decided to go ahead and take a half day of vacation to find out what a small claims trial is all about. I checked the court docket before I went, and saw that there were 10 cases scheduled to be heard, including one with a patient plaintiff vs. an M.D. defendant, so I thought that would be interesting and possibly helpful.

What I discovered after spending my afternoon in the courthouse was very encouraging. I observed some 5 or so cases being contested under the watchful eye of the Hon. John Flynn. I left with the strong feeling that, as either plaintiff or defendant, justice would be served – at least, to the degree permitted by the legal system itself.

Here are a few pointers I gleaned from my field trip:

  • The courtroom is cold. I mean, brrr-freezing-cold. Bring a sweater or a jacket. You’ll be happy you did.
  • Plaintiffs are told to sit on the right hand side, defendants on the left.
  • Your evidence should be marked with a large letter “P” on the upper right side of each page (if you’re the plaintiff). Defendants mark theirs with a triangle (probably intended to be the Greek letter delta Δ, for Δefendant, to avoid possible confusion between written Ps and Ds.)
  • You will be afforded an opportunity for mediation with the opposing party, at no cost to you. I saw one case accept the opportunity and they came back with a mutually satisfactory stipulation. The judge isn’t present when you’re asked if you’re open to mediation, so your decision either to accept or decline isn’t held against you. To me, it looked like a great opportunity with little or no downside. If the mediation doesn’t work out, you still get your day in court.
  • You will be directed to go outside the courtroom to show your evidence to the opposing party, and vice versa. This happens just before the judge arrives in the courtroom.
  • You might or might not get a chance to tell your story your way. If the judge thinks he understands the relevant facts, he won’t hesitate to cut to the chase and ask questions directly, interrupting the flow of your presentation. Be prepared for that. He will, however, at some point ask you if you have anything to add. It would make sense to be prepared with a list of relevant points you want to make, so that if you get interrupted, you can refer to the list to make sure everything got covered.

I saw Judge Flynn demonstrate patience (overly eager defendants, indignant at not being properly served), humor at clearly absurd situations (plaintiff didn’t show, but an attorney friend of one of plaintiff’s witnesses asked special dispensation to represent plaintiff – denied), and sternness toward those who didn’t take the process seriously (plaintiff’s documents were signed by someone else in his name). All in all, it was an eye-opening experience and helped restore my faith in at least one small part of the legal system.

Oh, and the M.D. defendant? A great guy. I’d go to him in a minute. The case against him was totally bogus and I won’t be a bit surprised to see judgment in his favor in a couple of weeks.

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