Generally Small Claims Court is like no other court in the judicial system. In most cases there are no formal rules of civil procedure, no rules of evidence, no motions and no discovery. All the hoopla of District or Superior Court is eliminated. As always there are exceptions. Some states allow motions and discovery and transfers so that formal rules of court may apply.
Typically, however, the clerk calls your case and you are directed to come forward. The court officer will administer the oath to tell the truth for both parties and all witnesses. As the plaintiff, you have the opportunity to speak first. Before jumping into your case, briefly introduce yourself to the judge and summarize your case in one or two sentences. For example:
Your honor my name is Mary Jones. I am a single mother working as an administrative assistant at Acme Inc. I am here today because I was involuntarily bumped from my flight by the defendant and the defendant provided insufficient denied boarding compensation as required by federal law to reimburse my expenses in staying at a hotel overnight before defendant booked me on another flight the following morning.
Remember, while you have been living with this issue for months, the judge has many cases on the docket and this might be the first time he or she has even seen your file. It is your chance to put your spin on the case by providing a very limited opening statement.
Once you have made your opening statement, you will have the opportunity to present your case. The judge will ask you to tell your story and question your witnesses to ferret out the facts. If you have the opportunity to question your witnesses use them to tell your story. Their testimony should be targeted to the relevant issues in the case with supportive articles such as the ticket, baggage claim receipt, receipts for transportation, meals or hotels, and any other relevant documentary evidence.
Beware, if you are able to question the witnesses your opponent will have the same opportunity to cross-examine. Make sure that your witness has something important to say and is reliable. Don't put a witness on to testify about how you should win because you are such a good person. The witness must have seen something or be privy to useful information. If not, it will come out in the cross-examination. Also make sure your witnesses are completely honest with you before you call them to the stand. Examination by the judge or defendant is not the place for the witness to have a change of heart.
Once you have presented your side, as shown on all legal programs on television, the defendant will put on its case. If the corporation is represented by counsel, as required in some states, don't be intimidated. Listen carefully to what is being said and remain detached and emotionless as if you were the attorney representing someone else. Take notes so that when it is your turn to cross-examine the witness you have something to ask. If something seems contradictory ask the witness about it. Ask the witness questions from the outline you made. Even though you can't question the witness before the hearing, you will have a general idea of what the person is going to say from your correspondence with the airline. If you have the smoking gun document, use it. But don't play Perry Mason to the detriment of your case. The facts will speak for themselves. The more you try to dazzle with legal finesse the quicker you may lose the judge.
Remember, the judge is also asking questions, so all is not lost if you get nervous and a little tongue-tied. Keep your cross-examination short and on point. Don't make it a personal attack or a demand for moral acknowledgement. This is a case about facts and the law, not your hurt feelings or a demand for an apology.
After both sides have had their say the judge may ask follow up questions. The judge may also give you the opportunity to make a closing statement, commonly known as a closing argument. In this case, briefly in 2 to 3 sentences summarize your case. For example:
Based on the testimony of Bob Jones and myself and defendant's own witness Ann Heart, the defendant knew that I was entitled to the involuntary denied boarding compensation as specified in defendant's General Carriage of Service and by law. And Defendant failed to provide the specified compensation. I am therefore entitled to damages in the amount as specified in my complaint supported by the documentary evidence as submitted today. I further request reimbursement of all court costs.
You should always ask for court costs and attorney fees where applicable.
You've done your best and it's now in the judge's hands. Remember the judge is not your friend or your enemy. His or her primary purpose is to 1) provide both parties an opportunity to have their say and 2) to get the facts so he or she understands the issues. After hearing all the facts the judge will make his or her decision.