Small claims court is a department of the district court. Small claims court is meant to be a quick, inexpensive way to resolve disputes about money that you've been unable to work out on your own. In small claims court, someone may sue another person, a business, or -- in some cases -- the government for up to $5,000. Lawyers usually may not participate. There are no juries, motions, or objections. The person who sues pays only a small charge for filing the lawsuit. You may get a trial much sooner than in other courts. Most trials are short, lasting about 20 minutes, but you may have to wait while other cases are heard.
Who you can sue in small claims court?
You may sue any individual or business. It is easier to sue Washington residents and Washington businesses but you can sue out-of-state people and business as well. You can sue more than one business or individual at a time.
How much can you sue for?
Small claims court has jurisdictions for claims up to $5,000. You may add expenses into your suit only if they came up as a result of the original problem. For example, if your car was damaged, you may sue for the cost of repair plus the cost of renting a car during the repair. You may include the costs of filing the lawsuit and having the legal documents delivered to your opponent. Generally, however, you may not add in lost wages or travel expenses connected with preparing the lawsuit.
How much time do you have to file a case?
This is a tricky question that does not have an easy answer. Generally, you have from 1 year to 6 years after the incident occurs. How many years you exactly have depends on what you're suing for. The time limit to bring a lawsuit is a very serious issue. The court will not give you a break even if you missed the deadline by one day.
Where can you sue?
After you have decided to sue someone in small claims court, go to the district court in the district where your opponent lives or where the business you're suing does business. You can find the location of district courts in the blue pages in the front of your phone book or online at http://www.courts.wa.gov/court_dir.
The small claims court is a department of the district court. The district court clerk will be able to tell you whether a particular address is within the boundaries of the court that you have contacted.
If you can't find your opponent's home address you may sue in the district where your opponent works.
If the dispute involves a traffic accident or a bad check, you may sue in the county where the traffic accident or bad check incident occurred.
Ok, it's all good....but how do I do it?
I could spend hours telling you how to do it but you would forget and it would all be legal jargon. Here is the easy way... each district court offers "small claims packets" that you can buy for a few dollars (or you can download from their website). These packets contain all the forms you need to fill to sue someone in small claims court.
Generally, you'll have to complete a form called "Notice of Small Claims." This form will basically say who's suing who. Don't sign it yet!
After you completed the form, do the following:
a) Get at least two copies of the completed form.
b) Give the original form to the court clerk.
c) Pay the clerk a small fee to file the claim ($14 - $29).
d) Sign the form in the presence of the clerk (if required in your county).
You should get your trial date when you deliver the Notice of Small Claim form to the court clerk.
Notify your opponent
At this point you need to notify your opponent that he/she is being sued. This is a critical step! Don't ignore this step or your lawsuit will be a failure. The judge will want to see proof that you notified your opponent in the right way. You can notify your opponent by sending via certified mail a copy of the Notice of Small Claim form. However, it is always best if you "personally serve" your opponent. Personally serving someone does not mean that you do it yourself. It just means that you have a person not personally involved with your case (and older than 18 yrs old) personally hand a copy of the Notice of Small Claim to your opponent, but don't do it yourself.
Make sure the Notice of Small Claim form reaches your opponent at least 10 days before the court date. If you are mailing the Notice of Small Claim form to your opponent, mail it at least 13 days before the court date.
Your trial date
As the person suing, you must prove that your opponent owes you money. Your opponent doesn't have to prove that he or she doesn't owe you money. If you don't have enough proof you will just lose. Explain the details of your case as follows:
o Describe what happened.
o Show the judge all the evidence you brought with you.
o Explain why you think your opponent owes you the amount of money you are suing for.
o Explain that you delivered the Notice of Small Claim to your opponent on time.
o If you have witnesses, tell the judge you would like to have your witnesses testify.
The judge and your opponent may ask you (and your witnesses) questions. Answer the questions carefully. Do not insult the other side. Try not to become too emotional.
Congratulations, you won! Now, where is the cash?
Getting a judgment is one thing, getting cash out of a judgment is another. It may be easier to accomplish the first than the second. Sometimes even if the judge makes a decision in your favor, you may not be able to collect.
If the person does not pay your judgment (or at least appeal it) within 30 days of the decision, you should consult a collection attorney or a company that specializes in debt recovery.
It is normal to be nervous before your trial date. Although lawyers cannot generally participate in a small claims court trial, it is still a good idea to consult with a lawyer before the trial date on how to best prepare for your and how to best present your case.
This guide is not meant to be a comprehensive explanation of the small claims court process. This guide is only meant to be a starting point. For specific rules and information on small claims court, ask the court clerk at your local district court. The law is never 100% straightforward and it's easy to make mistakes. If you don't feel comfortable handling your own case, it's always best to consult with an attorney.
Fabio Ambrosio, Esq.
Attorney at Law
Disclaimer: This answer does not create an attorney-client relationship and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult your attorney for legal advice tailored to your case.