Someone owes you money and you decided to file a small claims lawsuit. When you filed the Notice of Small Claim, the district court gave you a trial date. The defendant never offered to pay you, or "settle" the case. You tried mediation, where a neutral third party tried to get you both to agree to a compromise, but that didn't work.
Now it's time for the trial. The Washington small claims court is about to decide if you win or lose. It's the day you've been waiting for. So, it's a good idea for you to know how the trial process works and what you need to do to help make sure you're on the winning side.
Both you and the defendant have to show up or "appear" for trial on the date and at the time scheduled by the district court clerk when filed your Notice of Small Claim. Be on time and be ready. Get to the courthouse at least one hour before the scheduled time, just in case the court is moving ahead of schedule or there's a problem with your paperwork.
Bring everything you've gathered to prove your case, like receipts and photographs. And, make sure your witnesses know where the court is, when they need to be there, and what testimony they'll give (what they need to say). If possible, offer them a ride to the courthouse with you.
Depending on the district court the suit was filed in, you may be asked or ordered by the court to mediate the dispute. This is where a neutral third party, called a "mediator," helps you and the defendant settle your claim outside of court. If you can't come to an agreement, the case will go trial, usually that same day.
The trial will be heard by either a:
- District court judge
- Commissioner, who is an attorney that's been hired by the court to hear small claims cases. He has all the powers of a judge
- Pro-tem judge (or "temporary judge" or "judge pro tempore"), who is an attorney who volunteers her time to hear and decide small claims cases or is hired by the court to fill in when a judge or commissioner is on vacation or on sick leave. A pro-tem judge has all the powers of a judge
The trial process itself is simple and straightforward:
- Usually, the judge will ask you to explain your case. At this time, you'll also present your evidence (documents and photographs, etc.), and your witnesses should testify, too. The defendant can ask you and your witnesses questions, and the judge often asks questions as well
- The defendant is then asked to explain why he shouldn't have to pay you. The defendant will present his evidence and witnesses at this time. And, you can ask him and his witnesses questions
- The judge may ask you, the defendant or any witnesses more questions if she needs to clarify or understand something about the case
- The judge will make a judgment. She can do this either immediately after everyone has testified, or she can take the case "under consideration," which means she needs more time to think about it. If that happens, the judge will make a decision and mail it to you and the defendant within a few weeks after the trial
The evidence you should bring to trial to support your claims or defenses includes:
- Documents such as contracts, notes, leases, receipts, work orders, bids and estimates, police reports and the like
- The damaged goods you're suing over, or photographs of the goods
- Photographs or illustrations that explain what happened, such as where a car accident happened
- Any letters, e-mail messages or other correspondence between you and the other party
As plaintiff, you have the burden of proof. That means you have to convince the judge that the defendant owes you money.
You should follow these general suggestions for courtroom conduct:
- Be on time for your trial, and dress as nicely as you can. This shows the judge that you're taking the trial seriously
- Stick to the issues in dispute when presenting your case
- Be polite at all times and don't interrupt the judge. Also, don't speak directly to the other party unless the judge gives you permission to do so
Failure to Appear
If neither you nor defendant show up at trial, the case will be dismissed, meaning it's thrown out or ended. If you fail to appear at trial, the judge will dismiss your claim. If the defendant doesn't appear at trial, you win automatically. The judge will enter a judgment (called a "default judgment") awarding you the amount of your claim, plus your court costs or filing fees. In the case of a default, you still need to show the judge that your claim against the defendant is valid. Likewise, the defendant may be given a default judgment against you if he filed a counterclaim and you didn't show up at trial to defend yourself.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If the defendant and I come to an agreement during mediation on the day of trial, will I get a refund of my filing fees?
- I was in a car accident on my way to trial and I didn't make it in time. The judge dismissed my case. What can I do?
- A witness I need for my trial won't answer my phone calls or letters. Is there anyway I can make her show up at trial?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm
- Start the process with our Washington Small Claims Worksheet
- Next in the Small Claims series: Witnesses at a Small Claims Trial in Washington
- Success In Small Claims Court
- Small Claims Court Terms
- Defending a Small Claims Court Case
- Visit our Small Claims Court Forum for more help