Winning a Contracts
Case in Small Claims Court
you must show to convince the judge you're on the right side.
To win your case for any
contract, you must show:
That there was a
meeting of the minds, a basic understanding of the agreement
between the parties.
What the terms of
the agreement were, the time, place, and manner of performance,
and when it was supposed to be completed.
That the other party
broke its promise (breached the contract).
That you were
damaged in a particular amount because of the broken promise.
For defendants, if any
one of these elements is not or cannot be proven, you win.
For either side,
plaintiff or defendant, to help you decide how strong your case may
be, ask yourself:
What is your
understanding of the agreement? What should have happened?
Did everyone act the
way you expected them to? Actions still speak louder than words.
Because the precise meanings in most contracts are assumed (you
wouldn't care if the carpenter you hired drove nails right- or
left-handedly) or implied, the judge will especially want to know
what people did about it. People mostly act in an intentional
manner, especially when they have some expectation about how it
will affect them later on. So even though there may not be a
written or "formal" agreement, the judge can find one
based on what everybody did to further the enterprise. The parties
and witnesses can testify to what happened.
Is there any
evidence of the agreement besides what the witnesses say? If there
is anything written, look at it-a repair order or laundry claim
ticket, any notes taken during a telephone conversation, any
letters written or exchanged in the middle of the contract,
handwritten bills, or drawings of how a project was supposed to
about similar transactions will tend to fill in the blanks
concerning the intention about the newer ones. If you have
transacted business repeatedly with another and established a
fixed pattern of dealing with the person, an implied agreement can
be found based on this course of dealing.
How did the other
party fail to live up to the promises made to you? There may have
been more than one way. For example: "Not only did he not
paint my house the color I wanted, but he painted it in a two-tone
version of the wrong colors! Then he billed me twice the
How much did you
lose as the direct result of the failure(s)? You need to be able
to show how much you lost because of your failed expectations. If
you paid for something that was worthless, you should be able to
recover the purchase price. If you had to pay, for example, a
second plumber to fix a first plumber's botched job, you should
ask for what you paid the second plumber to complete the work.
This is true even though you may have had to pay the second
plumber more. You have a right to the full benefit of your
Look at the
financial position you were in before you entered into the
contract. If you win, the judge should put you back into that
position as closely as possible, as if the bad contract had never
If your property was
damaged beyond repair, you may be able to recover its full value
at the time it was damaged. Not replacement value, but fair market
value at the time the damage was done. Once you have used
something, it is not worth what it was new. A car salesman once
told me that the minute you drive a car off the lot, it
depreciates 25 percent in value. But if you show that you
purchased your mink coat for $3,500, for example, and wore it only
three times before the dry cleaner misplaced it, you should be
able to get close to the full value, as if it were new. If you
wore it 20 times, it would be helpful for you to be able to place
a specific value on it at its depreciated value. If you expected
to wear it 200 times over the life of the coat, it would be
depreciated 10 percent. You should recover $3,150 for its loss.
You can be creative in your demands and proof of your damages, as
long as you are reasonable. The judge must have a "reasonable
basis" to award you a specific sum of money.
Defendants, if you are
sued on a contract and do not agree with the plaintiff's point of view
(and who would expect you to?), you can assert several defenses to
prevent having the contract enforced against you. Here, too, a strong
defense is your best offense. Assert one of these successfully and it
will do away with the plaintiff's claim.
There was no
agreement. Contracts do not exist at all if there is no meeting of
the minds as to any part of the proposed agreement. For example,
no rate of pay or contract price, no description of what each of
you will do for the other, or no exchange of promises at all,
actual or implied. You are saying, "I never agreed with the
plaintiff about this at all!" You may have had negotiations
preliminary to making an agreement, but no accord was reached.
There was an
agreement, but it was different than the one the plaintiff claims
existed. Show by testimony and other evidence what the real
You did not violate
the contract. Or if you did a little, the plaintiff disregarded it
There was a
contract, but you entered into it by mistake. If you had known
what the true facts were, not your mistaken ones, you never would
have entered into the contract in the first place. So, it is
unfair that you be bound by it.
There was a
contract, but you were lured into accepting it by deception and
trickery. Therefore, you should not be bound by it.
There was a
started, you and the plaintiff changed your minds and agreed
to different terms.
started, you and the plaintiff agreed not to go forward with
After it began,
you and the plaintiff agreed to different terms and a new
You or the
plaintiff acted totally different than you had originally
agreed. Your contract was changed by actions that were not
accepted by one of the parties to the agreement.
You had a contract
and you broke your promises, but the plaintiff wasn't damaged in
nearly the amount he or she claims.
There were two
contracts. The second one changed everything.
There was a
contract, but it required one of you to do something illegal or
immoral. Therefore, you cannot be bound by it.
There was a
contract, but it became impossible to perform. Something
unforeseen happened, making the contract impossible or worthless.
For example, you agreed to paint the plaintiff's house, but then
before the job began, the house burned down.
There was a
contract, but you didn't have to do anything under the agreement
until the plaintiff did something first, and he or she never did
it. In this one, there is a condition that must be met before the
other party is required to perform his or her promise. You might
argue successfully with this defense: "Yes, I agreed to paint
the plaintiff's house as soon as he got the paint. He never
There was a
contract, but when it came time for you to perform, the plaintiff
said you did not have to. Your performance was excused.
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