People have minor disputes every day. They range from things like a mechanic not getting paid for car repairs he made, to a landlord refusing to return a tenant's security deposit. Often, these disputes don't involve enough money to justify hiring an attorney. The fees you may have to pay an attorney may be close to the amount you're owed. And what if you can't afford an attorney in the first place?
This is where small claims court comes into play. In Washington, the small claims court settles legal disputes that involve small amounts of money. The courts are designed to be easy to use, inexpensive, fast and a lot less formal than the other courts in the state.
You file a small claims case with the clerk of the appropriate district court. In Washington, there are nearly 50 district courts, with each covering at least one county.
Individuals or Businesses May Sue
Individuals, businesses and corporations can file suits and be sued in the small claims courts in Washington. The person or business that files a small claims lawsuit is called the strong>plaintiff. The person or business that is sued is called the defendant. If you're under 18 years old, your parent or legal guardian has to file the lawsuit for you (or "on your behalf").
If you're suing a corporation, you need its exact, legal name. The Washington Secretary of State's office can help you find it. Check with the local licensing agency for the proper names of other businesses, like partnerships.
In Washington, the most you can recover in small claims court is $5,000. If your claim is a little over $5,000, you may want to consider filing in small claims court anyway and forget about recovering the full amount. It will be faster, easier and less expensive than filing suit in another court. If your claim is a lot more than $5,000, you may want to talk to attorney to see what your chances are of recovering the full amount in another court.
Cases Suitable for Small Claims Court
Many different kinds of cases go to small claims court. Some of the most common cases involve:
- Goods or services sold
- Money loans
- Auto negligence
- Security deposit refunds
- Unpaid rent
- Minor accidents
- Car repair disputes
- Property damage
There are several things you can't sue for in small claims court, including divorce and child custody, you can't use the court to have your legal name changed, and landlords can't begin eviction proceedings in small claims court.
Statute of Limitations
The statute of limitations is how long you have to file a lawsuit after something happens. The time period is based upon the type of claim you have. For example, if you were injured in a car accident, you generally have three years from the date of the accident, or from the date that you "discovered" your injury, to file a "personal injury" lawsuit in Washington. The time periods can be shorter or longer, depending on your case. So, to be safe, you should file your lawsuit as soon as possible.
You file a small claims case by completing a form called "Notice of Small Claim." This form tells the court and the defendant why you're filing suit and what you're damages are. The district court clerk has this and other forms you may need to get your case moving, or you can get it online.
In Washington, neither you nor the defendant can have an attorney (or even a paralegal) represent you at trial or participate in the suit, unless the judge gives you permission to have an attorney present. Even so, you can hire an attorney to discuss your case before or after you go trial. But, the cost will come out of your pocket. Generally, the small claims court won't make the defendant pay your attorney's fees even if you win.
The district court clerk may help you complete the Notice of Claim, like telling you whose name goes where and where you should sign. She can't, however, give you legal advice about your claim. The clerk will also give you a copy of your completed Statement of Claim, which will show the date and time of your trial. Also, the clerk will help you make sure that a copy of the Notice of Claim is delivered to (or "served on") the defendant. If the defendant isn't properly served, your case may get thrown out of court.
Sometimes a case is settled before the trial, such as when the defendant pays what it owes you, for example. Other times your case may be settled through the help of a mediator, who tries to get you both to reach an agreement out of court. If neither of these happens in your case, a trial will be held before a district court judge. Here, both you and the defendant, and your witnesses, will be sworn in. You'll tell your side of the story first, and the defendant will get a turn. You'll each have a chance to ask each other questions, as well as question any witnesses.
There are no jury trials in Washington's small claims courts.
The judgment is the decision given by the judge. After hearing the arguments of both parties, the judge may make an immediate decision, or she may need more time to think about the case. When this happens, you'll be notified by mail when the decision has been made.
If the judgment is in favor of the defendant, the case is over and you can't recover any money or damages. If the judgment is in your favor, the judgment will list the amount of money the defendant must pay you. In some instances, either you or the defendant can appeal the judge's decision, that is, have another judge or court look at the case.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I have a claim against a general contractor for $5,400. How much will you charge me to file suit against him outside of small claims court?
- The Washington Department of Revenue is refusing to give me a full tax refund. Can I sue it in small claims court?
- From the date I file my Statement of Claim, how long will it take for my case to go to trial? Will it be faster if I hire you to file suit in another court?
Related Resources on Lawyers.comsm
- Start the process with our Washington Small Claims Worksheet
- Next in the Small Claims series: Filing a Small Claims Suit 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