In order to prove your case in District Court, you must be prepared to prove certain legal elements. How you prepare to prove your side of the case will depend on whether:
- You are the plaintiff (person who filed the case) or
- The defendant (person who was filed against).
There are many types of cases in District Court. For each type of case, it is critical that you organize your case based on the specific legal elements needed to prove your particular case.
See the examples of specific case types below for more details (Contracts and Negligence).
A contract can be written or oral. A contract is an agreement between two or more parties. One party agrees to do something for another party in exchange for something in return. For example, you agree to give a friend $450 if she will paint your bedroom with paint that you select.
In order to be a contract, your agreement must have the following legal elements:
- Intent - You and the other side must both intend to make an agreement between you. For example, a gift is not a contract. If the other side did not agree to do anything in return for the item, it is a gift. If your friend offers to paint your bedroom and you do not promise anything in return, it is not a contract.
- Performance - You must show that you did everything that you were obligated to do under the agreement. For example, you selected the paint and paid the $450.
- “Breach” – This means that you must show that the other side did not fulfill their side of the agreement. For example, your friend took the money and painted only the closet door.
- Damages – You must show that you have an actual financial loss. For example, you paid the $450 and did not get the service for which you paid. (And you had to hire someone else to paint the room for an added expense!)
What if I do not have my agreement in writing; can I still enforce a contract?
Yes – if your agreement meets that same contract standards described above. In addition, to be able to enforce a contract dealing with the sale of goods in court, your oral agreement must also be:
- Under $500 (MD Code –Title 2, Commercial Law §2-201(1)) and
- Enforced within one year of the agreement (MD Code –Title 5, Courts and Judicial Proceedings §5-901(3))
If your agreement was for $500 or more, look at the exceptions to see if you might still be able to enforce your agreement.
Negligence is a complicated legal concept. At the most basic level, negligence is: (1) when one person is careless and that carelessness harms another person; or (2) the carelessness of one person harms the property of another person.
Like contracts, there are certain legal elements that you must prove in order to show negligence. For example, say you had gone to the corner grocery store, while there, a box of jam jars fell in the aisle when you walked by and you fell. You sprained your ankle and the jam from the broken jars stained your expensive coat.
- Duty – You must show that the other side had a legal obligation to be careful. For example, the store was open to the public and therefore the owner had a legal obligation to make sure that the aisles of the store were safe for you to walk and select your merchandise.
- Careless Behavior or “Breach” – You must show that the defendant acted unreasonably and was careless. For example, the box of jam jars was not secured on the shelf. The defendant should have checked on the work of his employees before the store opened for business.
- Demonstrated link between the action and the harm or “Causation” – You then need to show that it was the defendant’s action (or inaction) that caused you harm. For example, if you had moved the box of jam to a higher shelf in order to find a box of grits, it may be hard to prove that it was the defendant’s action that caused your harm.
- Damages – Finally you must show that you suffered one or more of the following: an injury to you, a financial loss, property damage, or possibly even psychological stress or harm. For example, you might be able to prove: (1) that your $130 coat was stained and you were not able to remove the stain, (2) you had to pay for crutches, lost a day from work and had to pay a $250 medical bill and (3) you now are afraid to walk into supermarkets.
How old must a person be in order to enter into a contract?
In Maryland, you must be age 18 or older in order to have the legal authority to enter into an agreement that can be enforced in court. If you are under age 18, you can still make an agreement and if both parties honor it, there is no problem. If the minor fails to honor the agreement and the other party tries to sue the minor in court, the court will not enforce the agreement. (MD Code –Title 1, Commercial Law §1-103(a))
If you are a minor (under age 18), you will need to have an adult sue on your behalf. A parent or guardian has “standing” (the recognized right) to file a lawsuit for you. You can use the following format to describe the relationship when you fill in the top of the complaint form where it asks for the name of the plaintiff: “John Cleveland (parent) on behalf of Janelle Cleveland (minor).”
If you are the plaintiff
There are many different types of cases. The legal elements that you need to prove will be different for different types of case. Here are some common types of cases.
- “Breach of contract” – This means that you and the other side had an agreement and the other side did not live up to their side of the bargain. In the example above, your friend failed to paint the entire bedroom.
Personal loans - This is a type of contract case. With a loan you must prove:
- You gave the loan;
- You and the other side agreed that you would be repaid;
- The time frame for the loan (you cannot show that there was a “breach” until the loan is past due); and
- That the loan was not repaid (in part or in full).
Bad debt – this is a type of contract case. In order to prove that you are damaged, you must show the following:
- The identity of the other side;
- That there was a contract between you and the other party;
- You kept your promise; (For example, you provided the service or goods that the other side agreed to purchase.)
- The other side did not pay the debt.
- Property damage – If the other side was careless and as a result of that carelessness, your property was damaged, you must prove the elements listed under negligence above.
Defective product – If you purchased a product that was defective, Maryland’s consumer protection laws may cover you. You may have the right to return the product for a refund or cancel the entire contract without going to court. See this information from the Maryland Attorney General.
- If the business refuses to honor your request that the product be returned or replaced, this will be a contract case and you must prove those elements.
- If you were injured in some way by the defective product, this will be a different type of case called personal injury. In this type of case it is wise to speak with an attorney to decide what your options are and whether you should pursue this on your own.
If you are the defendant
You need to understand the law and what the plaintiff (the person who sued you) must prove. You can prepare in advance, but be prepared to react to what the other side says during the trial. Your job is to show one or more of the following.
- You were not at fault.
- If you were at fault, that the other side was not harmed or that someone else caused some (or all) of the harm.
- If the other side was harmed and it was your fault, you may be able to show that the award amount requested by the other side is incorrect or unfair.
- If the other side was harmed and it was your fault, you may also be able to show that the extent of the damage may be partly due to failures of the other side to try and limit your damages.