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Small-claims hearsay letter properly admitted

March 11, 2014

A dentist’s letter that said a man suing him had never complained about the service he received was not improperly admitted in a small-claims collections action, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled.

The panel affirmed the trial court in Michael E. Hitchens v. Collection Specialists, Inc., 48A05-1306-SC-302, in which the Madison County Small Claims Court found in favor of Collection Specialists, Inc. The debt-collection company representing Dr. Brad Laconi claimed Michael Hitchens owed $3,440 for dental work.

But Hitchens argued the small-claims court erred by admitting a letter that contained hearsay, and that he was deprived an opportunity to cross-examine the dentist.

“Although Dr. Laconi’s letter was the only evidence that there was an agreement between Dr. Laconi and Hitchens regarding the dental work, it was admissible hearsay evidence, and it was permissible for the small claims court to base its judgment on the letter,” Judge Rudolph R. Pyle III wrote for the panel. While the letter wasn’t sworn, it was signed by the dentist and presented under oath.

The panel also gave some deference to the less-stringent evidence rules of small claims courts, following the Indiana Supreme Court holding in Matusky v. Sheffield Square Apartments, 654 N.E.2d 740 (Ind. 1995).

“On appeal, we wrote that the effect of re-writing the Small Claims Rules to provide that a judgment could not be based exclusively on hearsay evidence would ‘impose technical rules upon largely untrained litigants[,] completely thwarting the express purpose of providing an uncomplicated and simple method of resolution of issues in order to dispense speedy justice between the parties,’” Pyle wrote of Matusky.

“For the same reasons, we decline to impose such technical rules here, and we conclude that the trial court did not deny Hitchens due process.”


 

 

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