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Identifying Your Small Claims Cause of Action

What Kind of Claim Do You Have?

Every formal discipline-whether it is law, medicine, or publishing-has labels for the transactions that regularly occur in it. The law labels causes of action-the particular types of claims that are brought to court. These claims are distinguished by the differences in the rights that are affected, and the manner in which the particular claim arose.

Civil law, as opposed to criminal law, is divided into two broad categories: torts and contracts. These are matters of substantive law, the law that defines your rights in a particular situation.

Remember, these cases have been around since the beginning of time, so the principles of law governing these subjects are surprisingly uniform. Our whole system of laws came over with the Puritans in 1620, and the legislators who have written our modern day statutes and the courts that have interpreted them have consistently carried forward these age-old principles of law. They do not vary much from court to court or state to state, and because the society that came to be the United States has been on this continent for nearly 380 years, the customs that make up the "unwritten laws" this society runs on have been consistent, too. For example, "You don't take advantage of widows, orphans, the mentally, physically, or emotionally disadvantaged" is a widely accepted principle that can affect the outcome of any civil case.

There is one unwritten inflexible rule that underpins decisions in all courts in this country: "We will do our best to be fair to all parties." This should mean that everyone comes into court with an equal chance to prevail solely on the facts and laws pertaining to his or her case. The economic, social, educational, or other differences between people that have no bearing on the case should not be part of the trial. However, because people are making the decisions that result in judgments, errors can be made. Still, if the facts and circumstances of your case are very clear and the principles of law relating to them are well settled, you can expect that your facts and law will prevail. How heavily your judge will rely on fairness in deciding your case will derive from the peculiarities of your case and the judge's psychological makeup.

Judges are people with a strange job, but are first of all human. Each judge has unique biases and inclinations that color every judgment he or she makes. Often, they are not aware that these biases exist or affect their decisions. This shouldn't be a big worry, because the other side in your case will be subject to the same inclinations when the decision finalizing your case is rendered.

Like every life, every case is unique. Don't rely on what your brother-in-law or lawyer friend may tell you about the value of your case. Your case is unlike any other that has gone before it, and only you will best be able to predict the outcome of your trial, because you will know the most about it, and will know that you have prepared well.

Okay, so is your case a tort or contract case? Well, to determine that, we need to know the facts. What are facts, anyway? Facts are distinguished from, and different than, opinions or judgments. Facts can be verified by looking at some objective authority. Generally, opinions cannot. If I say, "Ted's dog bit me," I can show that it is true or false by looking at circumstances that can be measured by the senses. I have four holes in my forearm where the dog connected, and I have witnesses to the incident I can look to for verification.

On the other hand, if I say, "Ted is a jerk," I am reporting on my state of mind, a conclusion I have drawn about Ted. The best I can do to verify it is look around for people who have the same state of mind as me, who agree with me. There is no objective standard I can look to for verification. This judgment summing up Ted's character is an opinion.

The process of proving facts in court is known as presenting your evidence. Proof is any matter that tends to sway the mind toward believing or disbelieving the truth or falsity of a claim. The witnesses we bring to court are the verifying authorities, and other evidence we bring to court, such as documents, photographs, and recordings are used to show that what you claim happened is fact.

The difference between facts and opinions is important, because what you bring to court should be the facts. What you want is an opinion about your facts that is in your favor. You accomplish this by persuading the judge that you deserve to win. You are asking the judge to consider facts A, plus B, plus C (the applicable law) and conclude: You are entitled to win, and you do win. This is the opinion you are looking for when you present a case at trial.

Your opinion about what happened doesn't matter at all. Only the judge's opinion counts. Even if everyone in the world and elsewhere thinks that Ted is a jerk, if Ted has the facts and law on his side, he will win.

People who are passionate about their causes want the judge to know every possible bad thing they know about the person who is opposing them in court. That you think the other party is a crook, liar, or mangy dog is not really about them, but about the reaction they have caused inside you, and it does not matter when you are trying to get money that party owes you.

The facts we find in civil cases deal with claimed violations of private wrongs or civil wrongs. Again, crimes are violations by an individual affecting the society as a whole, and are defined by the penal statutes. If you violate a criminal statute, you are to be punished by the government whose law you broke. The fine money goes to the same place, and the government also foots the bill for jail, should that be your punishment.

Private wrongs, also called civil wrongs, arise from the violation of some duty imposed by civil laws or by agreement. They are enforced by civil lawsuits. If you have been wronged and recover, the other side is not punished. The extent of their loss, if any, is only to the extent of what you win. The purpose of the civil lawsuit is to put the parties back into the same position they would have been in if the wrong had not occurred. Because it is impossible in many of these cases to undo the wrongs, money is substituted for the value of the harm done.

It is important that you understand the nature of your claim. Once you decide that your problem is a contract problem, you can apply an analysis to it that will prepare your case for trial. You need to prove different points for contracts than for torts, and you defend against these claims in different ways. Once you name your cause, courthouse personnel will better be able to help you, too.

In your opening statement, if you can say, "Your honor, this case involves the tort of conversion," everyone will be impressed, except the opposition, who will be downright scared. So be sure you know what your claim is before you go to small claims court.


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