By David Little
When most people think of going to court to resolve a dispute, they think of lawyers, paperwork, and high costs. Small claims courts offer alternatives in which a person can cheaply and quickly resolve a dispute without a lawyer.
In small claims court, you may sue another person or business (the defendant) for any amount up to $5,000. To make someone do something, such as perform a service or return property, or for amounts greater than $5,000, you cannot use small claims, and neither can you sue the State of Washington. Typical cases involve auto accidents, property damage, landlord/tenant disputes, and personal debt collection.
To begin the lawsuit, obtain the Notice of Small Claim form from your local small claims clerk. In the case of traffic accidents or unlawfully issued checks, the claim must be filed in the county where the accident occurred or the check issued. Then, notify the defendant of the lawsuit using service of process: (1) service by certified mail; (2) personal service by someone other than you who is at least 18-years-old; or (3) other substitute service (such as by a process server or the local sheriff’s office). To serve notice on a business, contact the Secretary of State, Division of Corporate Records, at 360-753-7115 to determine the business’s Registered Agent for service.
The small claims hearing is your chance to convince the judge why you should win. In order to adequately prepare, you should gather all your documents, ask witnesses to come with you, and practice what you will say. You may consult with an attorney, but otherwise attorneys and paralegals are excluded from appearing in small claims court unless permitted by a judge.
Should you miss your hearing without rescheduling it, you will lose automatically: called losing by default. The judge will dismiss your claim; however, generally the court will allow you to file your claim if good cause is shown for the non-appearance. If the defendant does not show for the hearing and you properly served her, she will also lose by default.
If you win, the judge will order a judgment against the defendant. However, the court will not collect the money for you. That must be done through other methods.