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What Is a Small Claims Court in Washington?
When a person or business has a disagreement with another concerning money, they can sue the other party in a civil court to recover the money. Usually, this happens when the entity cannot obtain relief by other means. In Washington State, an injured party can bring their case to a small claims court when it involves a small amount of money.
The small claims court in Washington is a branch of the district courts that hear civil claims for the recovery of money, provided that the amount in contention does not exceed $10,000, or $5,000 for business entities. Unlike the district courts, the small claims courts offer a cheaper, faster, and less formal means of resolving low-dollar disputes.
Examples of cases heard in the small claims court include landlord/tenant disputes regarding security deposits, car collisions, bad checks, purchase of defective products, neighbor disputes, etc. However, the Washington small claims court cannot handle claims to recover property or for equitable relief (compelling a person or business to perform an action).
How Does the Washington Small Claims Court Work?
The proceedings in the Washington small claims courts are conducted according to state laws and court rules, specifically:
- The Civil Rules for the Limited Jurisdiction Courts, Rule 5 (CRLJ 5), and
- The Washington Revised Codes (RCW) (Chapters 3.66, 4.16, 4.28, 12.40, and 59.18
These rules and statutes can also be obtained from a local library.
In Washington, a small claims lawsuit can be filed by any person, business, or corporation. Indeed, a person does not have to be a state resident to use the state's small claims court. The entity who brings the suit is the "plaintiff," whereas the sued party is known as the "defendant." However, it is not possible to sue the state of Washington in this court, nor can case parties use paralegals or lawyers to defend their claim without the permission of a presiding judge.
A small claims case starts when a person or business files a claim with the district court clerk. There is no small claims court clerk in Washington. Instead, because the small claims courts are a special division of the district courts, the courts are run by assigned district court personnel and officials.
In the period before the court resolves a claim, the parties involved will have to pay small filing fees and court costs, follow local rules and procedures, and appear in court on their trial date. At any pre-trial stage of a small claims case, plaintiffs and defendants can opt to settle out of court.
Owing to the court's informal procedures—no attorneys or jury trials, cases are heard and resolved much more quickly than in the other state civil courts. At most, a hearing will last 20 minutes or thereabout.
Parties to a small claims case in Washington have the right of appeal to the superior court if unsatisfied with a district court judge's final decision. The only exception where the right of appeal is not given is when the claim is under $250. Otherwise, parties with claims or counterclaims above $1,000 can generally appeal a small claims judgment.
Appellants (person filing the appeal) are expected to follow the rules and procedures outlined in RCW 12.36, one being that they must file the appeal within 30 days of the small claims judgment entry. The appeal trial shall be conducted de novo—as if the original trial never took place. As an appeal is more complex than a small claims case, it may be a good idea to involve a lawyer to ensure that no legal rights are compromised.
Generally, an appellant will have to file a notice of appeal, serve it on the other case party, and pay certain fees ($230 as the superior court's filing fee, $20 for the district court transcript, and $40 as the appeal preparation processing cost) to the district court.
The exact appeals procedure for small claims judgments can be obtained from the Washington Courts website by reading the applicable law or seeking legal counsel. However, if the appeal is to set aside a default judgment, it must follow the district court rules.
How to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Washington
Wronged parties can take someone to small claims court in Washington by filing a Notice of Claim form in the district court clerk's office. The place of filing is the county where a defendant resides, or a business operates. The notice form can be obtained from clerk offices, official court websites, and the Washington Courts website. The clerk and court addresses, and court websites' links, can be found on the Washington Court Directory.
Any small claims lawsuit being filed must be within the court's jurisdictional limit—$10,000. It is not possible to be awarded damages over that amount, nor can parties break up the same claim into different suits. Litigants with claims over that amount can still use the small claims court, but they must be willing to drop their claim to an amount within the court's limit.
On the Notice of Claim form, a plaintiff will have to fill in their information (name, address, contact details) and the defendant's information. It is possible to sue more than one defendant. Furthermore, the party will need to state:
- The amount of the claim
- The date the cause of action arose
- The claim type, e.g., wages, rent, auto accidents, loan, return of a deposit, etc.
- The reason for the filing
The individual or business will also have to sign and date the form under the penalty of perjury while the court clerk is present or by other court-ordered means. (See claim form from the King County District Court).
After preparing the form and making at least 2 copies, the plaintiff must pay the court filing fee to submit the original claim form and copies. This amount can be $35 or $50, depending on if the filing county has a dispute resolution center. The court will retain the original form and give the plaintiff copies to arrange service.
Serving the Defendant
The next step after filing a small claims lawsuit is to serve the defendant with a copy of the Notice of Claim. This will require additional fees payable by the plaintiff. If the plaintiff's claim is successful, the party may recover the filing and service fees from the defendant.
The Notice of Small Claim can be delivered to the defendant by personal service (county sheriff or private process server), registered or certified mail, or another method mentioned in RCW 4.28.080. The notice will contain the pre-trial hearing date and case number of the claim, and must be sent to the defendant at least 10 days before the hearing date.
For any service done by mail, the plaintiff must file a copy of the return receipt bearing the defendant's signature on or before the pre-trial date. However, if the defendant was served personally, the plaintiff must obtain a certificate of service from the serving party and file it with the court on/before the pre-trial date.
Note that additional procedures apply if a defendant is in the military, a minor, or incompetent. For this, it might be a good idea to seek legal advice.
Once the plaintiff completes the filing and service procedures of the court, the case moves to the next levels: the filing of an answer by the defendant, the pre-trial hearing, and mandatory mediation. If the case cannot be resolved outside the court by extrajudicial methods, it proceeds to trial before a judge.
How Much Can You Sue for in Washington Small Claims Court?
The most that any natural person (human being) can ask for in the Washington small claims court is $10,000. Beyond that, the small claims court cannot hear the case. For a business entity and others, this amount is less—$5,000.
Anyone whose injury, loss, or damage exceeds these amounts can still bring a claim to the small claims court, but they will only receive a money judgment within the court's jurisdictional limit.
How to Defend Yourself in Washington Small Claims Court
In a small claims action, the defendant is the party accused of an injury or loss, and as such, liable to pay restitution to the injured party (plaintiff). Any person or business sued in the Washington small claims court will receive a copy of the Notice of Claim filed by the plaintiff. This is known as a "service of process."
Upon receiving this notice, the defendant must note the pre-trial date and appear in court on that date. Written answers are not required in Washington. If contesting the claim, the party can file a counterclaim against the plaintiff before the hearing date and incur the court costs for that action.
On the pre-trial date, the plaintiff and defendant must attend court. There are no witnesses required at this stage, as the hearing is scheduled to facilitate settlement between the two parties via mediation. Plaintiffs are required to bring proof of service and 2 copies of any supporting evidence (a defendant can do this as well). If both sides cannot agree on a settlement, the case will proceed to trial, and the court will set a date that will be communicated to all case parties.
Note that not every county has pre-trial procedures. Nevertheless, all small claims litigants must attempt mediation or other dispute resolution means. Indeed, wherever possible, litigants are encouraged to try out-of-court settlement. One reason for this is that there is no guarantee that an entity's claim will be successful or that they will obtain the compensation they desire—not to mention the additional expenses (e.g., transportation costs) that a person may incur while pursuing the claim in court. As such, it may be far better to contact the other party or their attorney to discuss the situation and see if a mutual agreement cannot be reached.
Bear in mind that the court must be notified in writing of any settlement in order to cancel a hearing and dismiss a case. If a case party promises to pay for the injury, the other party can request a continuance. If such a party pays before the agreed-upon date, the other entity can inform the court to cancel the hearing. However, if that date comes and goes without payment, the promised party can continue with the case in court.
How Long Do You Have to Take Someone to Small Claims Court in Washington?
The civil statute of limitation laws in Washington regulate the length of time a person has to file a small claims case in court. By exceeding this limit, a person or corporation may lose their right to receive any monetary award from the court for a loss or injury they suffered. Some of these limits are as follows:
- Personal injury - 3 years (RCW 4.16.080)
- Personal property - 3 years (RCW 4.16.080)
- Written contracts - 6 years (RCW 4.16.040)
- Oral contracts - 3 years (RCW 4.16.080)
Ultimately, it is advisable to review the law or seek legal counsel to know these limits. However, the earlier a claim is filed after the cause of action arose, the better.
What Happens if You Don't Show Up for Small Claims Court in Washington?
Small claims plaintiffs and defendants must show up on the date of any scheduled hearing or risk facing legal action from the court. Litigants are advised to be well prepared, have all materials that will be presented as evidence ready, and come to the court on time. Evidence that may be presented in court includes contracts, receipts, photographs, canceled checks, repair bills, written damage estimates, promissory notes, warranties, etc. If a witness is a key element in the case, it is important to ensure that the party will attend the hearing, even if they must be subpoenaed.
At the hearing, case parties should present their facts as clearly and concisely as possible. It is best to speak calmly, politely, and avoid any emotional response.
If the defendant fails to attend court on the fixed date, the court can enter a default judgment in the amount that the plaintiff demanded, plus filing and service costs if the plaintiff can provide proof of service. However, if the plaintiff did not appear, the court will dismiss the case and allow the plaintiff to begin the case afresh if there is a good reason for the absence.
What are Small Claims Court Records in Washington?
The Washington Public Records Act promotes public access to records created by state agencies, including the state courts. As a result, state residents and other interested persons can request to inspect or copy a small claims court record unless otherwise restricted by law. These records include the dockets, judgments, calendars, pleadings, etc., of cases filed in the small claims court. More information can be obtained from the Washington Courts' Access to Court Records Brochure.
Where Can I Find Washington Small Claims Court Records?
When seeking small claims court records in Washington State, the first place to check is the courthouse where the case was filed. The court will most likely have a public access terminal that members of the public can use to inspect records, or the court clerk's office will provide copies of the records for a nominal fee.
Washington court records can also be accessed using the online resources maintained by the state . The Administrative Office of the Courts manages a statewide case management database called JIS-Link. On the system, members of the public can subscribe to view indexes of cases and documents filed in a small claims court.
Some courts, e.g., the King County District Court, may also maintain their independent public records systems. The street addresses, contact numbers, and websites of the small claims courts can be obtained from the Court Directory.
Lastly, the inquirer can search a trustworthy third-party site to view or obtain small claims case records.