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COA reverses small claims judgment

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a small claims court judgment because it was troubled by the court's outright refusal to give the plaintiff a chance to introduce evidence to refute a counterclaim.

In Robert A. Elrod v. Larry Brooks, No. 10A01-0903-CV-155, Robert Elrod appealed the small claims court's judgment in favor of Larry Brooks, who was the defendant in Elrod's suit and filed a counterclaim for theft and conversion. Elrod filed his original complaint alleging Brooks never gave him the title or bill of sale for two trailers he purchased from Brooks.

The small claims court knew there was a complaint and counterclaim before Elrod presented his case. After he finished, the judge asked if Elrod wanted to present any more evidence, to which Elrod said no. Then Brooks brought his case; Elrod asked to let witnesses dispute Brooks' claims, but the judge refused.

The small claims judge said he had given Elrod a chance to present his case and Brooks didn't present anything surprising or shocking. He also said letting Elrod present his case again would be like starting over, which he can't allow. The court granted judgment in Brooks' favor and ordered Elrod to pay $3,000 in damages.

The Court of Appeals determined the small claims court erred in denying Elrod the opportunity to present evidence on Brooks' counterclaim. It recognized the great amount of discretion the small claims court has in conducting proceedings before it, but it erred in not letting Elrod try to refute Brooks' counterclaim, wrote Judge Patricia Riley.

There's nothing in the Small Claims Rules that would prevent it from following the Rules of Trial Procedure, as the Indiana Supreme Court ruled in Bowman v. Kitchel, 644 N.E.2d 878, 879 (Ind. 1995). In that case, the high court decided that the Rules of Trial Procedure apply in small claims court unless the particular rule in question is inconsistent with something the small claims rules.

"Even if it was the small claims court's intention that Elrod should have presented all his evidence which supported his claim and contested Brooks' counterclaim at the same time, the court never shared this intent with the parties," Judge Riley wrote. "Regardless, it would still be dubious for Elrod to have to defend against a claim before hearing the evidence in support of it. Although informality is the key in small claims proceedings, it should not come at the cost of fundamental rights of the parties."

The appellate court remanded for a new trial.

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