The purpose of small claims court is to hear disputes involving relatively small amounts of money—for example, if you want to get your landlord to return your security deposit, or an auto repair shop to give you a refund for shoddy work.
Court procedures are simple, inexpensive, quick, and informal. Most people who appear in small claims court present their own case and don't have a lawyer.
Small claims court rules, including maximum amounts for which you can sue, vary by state. This article provides an overview of small claims cases in Washington, from the perspective of the person filing the court case (the plaintiff). In Washington, small claims cases are heard in the Small Claims Department (district court), referred to as small claims court in this article.
Who Can Sue in Small Claims Court in Washington
If you are at least 18 years old (or an emancipated minor), you can file a claim in small claims court. A business entity, such as a corporation or partnership, is typically allowed to bring actions in small claims court, but check with your small claims court clerk for special rules and exceptions.
Dollar Limit on Washington Small Claims Cases
To bring your case in small claims court in Washington, you must be seeking to recover $5,000 or less. If you want to sue for more than the limit, you have to go to a different court, which may not be worth it given the complicated rules and costs of hiring an attorney.
Suing for Something Other Than Money
With a few exceptions, small claims courts in Washington can only award money, up to the court limits. If you need an order to make someone do (or stop doing) something, other courts are available. For example, if you want to file for divorce or seek higher child support, you will need to go to a family law court.
Deadline for Filing a Small Claims Case in Washington
Under Washington state law (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 4.16.005 et seq.), there are limits (called statute of limitations) on the amount of time you have to bring a lawsuit. The statute of limitations for cases in Washington ranges from three to six years, depending on the situation, including type of contract; you’ll want to contact your small claims court or do some legal research to verify the limit for your specific case.
You can consult an attorney if you’ve missed the deadline and still want to pursue legal action, although there are very limited situations when you might be able to do so.
Filing a Small Claims Suit in Washington
The first step in filing a small claims case is to obtain and fill out the necessary forms, such as a “Notice of Small Claim” form, and pay the required fees. You’ll need some basic information to complete the paperwork, like the name and address of the person or business you’re suing (the defendant) and some details about your claim including the date the claim arose and the amount you intend to ask for in damages. Check with the small claims court where you are filing your action to make sure you have all the information you need and fees required to start your lawsuit.
Most small claims actions are filed in the county where the defendant resides or, if residence cannot be determined by reasonable efforts, place of employment; for corporations, actions are filed where it transacts business or has an office. Rules about where you can bring your lawsuit vary depending on the situation and you may have other choices, such as filing where the incident giving rise to the claim occurred.
Clarify what forms you need to complete and how to serve them on the person or business you are suing (the defendant).
Small Claims Trials
After the proper forms have been filed and the defendant served, both sides need to prepare their cases for court. Careful preparation is key to success. This involves:
writing a compelling statement
gathering documents and evidence, such as contracts, credit card statements, and photographs
selecting reliable witnesses (people who saw what happened or experts on the subject matter of the claim involved), who will come to court to tell what they have seen or heard
deciding on the order in which you will present your evidence, and
preparing what you will say in court.
The Court Judgment
The decision in a small claims court case (the judgment) will usually be mailed to the parties, usually a few days or a few weeks after the case is heard. There are exceptions however, typically if one side doesn’t show up and the other wins by default (default judgments are often announced right in the courtroom).
If you win, and the judgment is in your favor, the judge will order the other party to pay a specified amount of money. If things go smoothly, you’ll get your money and that’s it. But sometimes, the person (or business) that lost the case may not have the money to pay the judgment, or may simply refuse to pay it. In that situation, you may need to take legal action (and spend money) to enforce the judgment. The court won't collect the judgment for you.
Filing an Appeal
Under Washington law, an appeal must be filed within 30 days. The party who files a claim or counterclaim can’t appeal unless the amount exceeds $1,000; and no party can appeal unless the amount claimed is $250 or more. Check with the small claims court where you filed your action for details on the appeal process.
Working With a Lawyer in Washington Small Claims Court
Attorneys are not allowed in small claims court in Washington without the judge’s consent, unless the case is transferred from regular civil court. Check court rules for details. Even if you don’t have attorney representation in court, you may want to seek a lawyer’s advice about your case—for example, if you are suing your landlord for the return of your security deposit, you may want to consult an experienced tenants’ attorney to make sure you have a strong case. Or if your dispute involves another business, you may want advice from a business lawyer. Check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory, to find a Washington attorney who specializes in your type of legal issue.
More Information on Small Claims Court in Washington
For information on filing a small claims case in Washington, see “An Introduction to Small Claims Court,” on the Washington Courts’ website.
For detailed information on every phase of small claims court, from preparing a winning case to collecting money if you win, see Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).
Questions for Your Attorney
What should I do if I can't find the defendant and can't serve him?
The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong district and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Notice of Small Claim form and pay another filing fee?
Do I have to appear in court, and what happens if I can’t make it?