Washington District Court Small Claims Process

Learn about filing a small claims case in Washington District Court.

By , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

Filing a claim in the Washington District Court, the court handling small claims matters in Washington, can be a straightforward and inexpensive way to settle a dispute. Although the procedures are more relaxed than in traditional courts, you still must follow the rules to prevail.

Below are concise answers to common questions about the Washington District Court process. You'll learn about preparing and presenting your case, appealing a small claims decision, and collecting a money judgment. You'll also find links to additional small claims articles.

How Does Washington Small Claims Court Work?

A small claims case starts by filing a claim with the Washington District Court. You'll serve a copy of the claim and court date on the "defendant," the person or company you're suing.

To prevail at the trial, you must present evidence supporting your case. The defendant will also have the opportunity to present a defense in response. A defendant who files a counterclaim against you must submit evidence proving you owe the defendant money. You'll have an opportunity to defend yourself against the counterclaim.

After hearing each side's argument and evaluating the evidence, the judge will issue a money judgment to the person proving they're entitled to an award. Receiving a money judgment is very powerful because it allows a creditor to collect using property liens, wage garnishments, bank account levies, and property seizures.

What's the small claims court limit in the Washington District Court?

You can ask for up to $10,000 in a small claims action in the Washington District Court if you're a natural person. The limit for all other cases is $5,000. Plaintiffs with claims exceeding the limit can use small claims court if they're willing to accept the cap. Otherwise, they must file in a higher court.

Example. Faith, Emma, and Charlie each have personal injury cases and are considering filing in small claims court. Faith and Emma's medical bills exceed $20,000. Charlie's bills are $1,000. When researching small claims rules, they learn about the Washington $10,000 small claims limit. Here's what they decide to do next.

Faith, wanting $20,000 total compensation, hires a lawyer to file her case in a higher court. Although Charlie can recover his $1,000 in medical bills in small claims court, he also wants compensation for vehicle damage and extensive pain and suffering. Charlie hires a lawyer and files in a higher court. Emma is willing to accept the small claims maximum to avoid lengthy litigation and files in small claims court, representing herself.

Can a landlord bring an eviction lawsuit in a Washington small claims court?

No, evictions aren't heard in Washington District Court. However, it's an excellent forum for other types of cases brought in small claims courts, such as property damage cases and breach of contract disputes.

Which Washington District Court should I file my small claims action in?

Washington has many District Courts, but you can't always pick the most convenient location. You must choose the proper court location or venue. Otherwise, the defendant can ask the court to transfer or dismiss your action.

In Washington, you can file in the district court that serves the area:

  • where any defendant resides
  • where the defendant's place of employment is located (if reasonable efforts cannot determine the defendant's residence), or
  • where a corporate defendant transacts business or has an office.

Go to the Washington Secretary of State corporation webpage for company information. Also, be aware that you might have other options, depending on your case. Most courts post venue rules on the court website.

Example. Bailey and her daughter traveled six hours to an amusement park for her daughter's birthday. While resting on a park bench, a toddler escaped her inattentive parent and splattered a messy ice cream cone on Bailey's designer suede bag. Although the appalled parent promised to forward the funds through CashApp or Venmo, the money never materialized. Bailey considered suing in small claims court but decided against it after learning she must file where the incident occurred or where the child's parents live, both of which were six hours away.

How much time do I have to file a case in small claims court in Washington?

You don't have an unlimited amount of time to file a lawsuit. You'll have to bring it within the statute of limitations period for the case type. But pinning down how much time you have to file isn't always as simple as reading the statute of limitations.

The time can stop and restart depending on various circumstances, and figuring out when it expires can be challenging. The process is known as "tolling" the statute of limitations, and it happens when a plaintiff or defendant is unavailable for a lawsuit. For instance, the personal injury statute won't begin running on a minor's injury until the child reaches 18 years of age and can sue without the help of a guardian. Learn more about calculating the statute of limitations and whether it's too late to sue.

Example. Frank constructed a fence for his friend Myra, but after several years, Myra still hadn't paid him the agreed amount. Because they had a written contract, Frank had proof of the amount Myra owed and filed an action in small claims court. However, Myra objected to the case because the contract called for payment five years earlier, and the state's statute of limitation period for contracts was four years. Because Frank did not file the case within four years, the small claims judge dismissed the case.

Example. While Frank was building Myra's fence, Malik was repairing her plumbing (she had recently purchased a fixer-upper). Malik also had a written contract with Myra, wasn't paid, and sued her in small claims court five years later. Unlike Frank, when Myra objected to the case, Malik was prepared. He presented proof that state law tolled the statutory period while Myra served a two-year prison sentence for fraud, leaving him a year to file. The court agreed and allowed the case to proceed.

Can an attorney represent a small claims claimant in Washington District Court?

Generally, no, but two exceptions exist. A lawyer can represent you if the judge agrees to the representation or if the case was transferred from another court. However, even if you can't hire a lawyer, small claims court is more relaxed and easier to navigate than higher courts, and most people are comfortable pursuing claims "in pro per" or without counsel.

Does the defendant need to answer the small claims complaint?

No. A defendant doesn't need to file a response to avoid an automatic loss and default judgment. Instead, the defendant can attend the hearing and put forth a defense. However, you should check with your court to determine if there is anything you must do to avoid a default.

Example. Vincent sued Marina for the maximum small claims limit, knowing she wouldn't appear to dispute the debt. As expected, Marina didn't respond and lost by default. However, Vincent was surprised when the judge asked him to "prove up the case" by presenting proof of Marina's debt. Unprepared, all Vincent could do was tell the judge how much Marina owed, which he admitted was far less than he had requested. Because of the inconsistencies, the judge found Vincent's testimony unreliable and awarded him nothing.

Learn what happens if you get sued in small claims court.

Will I have a judge or jury trial in small claims court in Washington?

A judge will hear your case. Washington doesn't allow jury trials in small claims cases. Find out what to expect at the small claims trial.

How to Prepare and Present a Washington District Court Case

You'll want to explain what happened and present evidence supporting your version of the events and the amount of money lost.

What do I need to prove in my small claims case?

It will depend on the type of case. In most instances, you'll need to prove that the person you're suing harmed you and the amount of money it will take to right the situation. Research the "elements" of your case type to determine exactly what you must prove.

Tip. One of the most important things people forget to do is prove how much they're out of pocket. For instance, you'll likely provide medical bills if you were injured and repair estimates if you suffered property damage. Make sure you can prove how much it will take to fix the problem.

What type of evidence should I present in small claims court?

If you're suing someone who didn't comply with a written contract, you'll need copies of the contract and any correspondence exchanged. You might also want to present photos of shoddy work or damaged property.

If someone witnessed an event, bring them in. You might also need expert testimony to establish the defendant caused the problem if it isn't something that can be inferred. For instance, only a medical professional can testify about the cause of illness or injury, and you'd need a mechanic to verify most automotive repairs. Check with the court to see if you can provide a statement made under oath if the person is unavailable or charges too much for in-person testimony.

Learn about gathering evidence in support of your small claims case.

How should I organize my small claims presentation?

After providing the judge with a short case description, you'll likely present the facts chronologically. If you're afraid you'll forget something or are worried you'll ramble on, write out your presentation and read it when it's your turn. However, you'll likely make a better impression if you speak naturally, using a bullet point list for reference when needed. Either way, practicing beforehand is the key to a polished presentation.

Also, it's best to cover each point concisely yet fully, with as little emotion as possible. You'll also want to avoid jumping in if the other side says something incorrect. Instead, make a note and address it when it is your turn to speak.

What Happens After Presenting a Washington Small Claims Case

The court might announce the winner immediately after the trial, but it's more likely that you'll find out who prevailed by mail. Your next steps will depend on whether you win or lose.

Can I appeal a Washington District Court case?

Yes, you can appeal the decision under certain conditions. Specifically, the person sued cannot appeal unless the claim amount exceeds $250, and the person who files the claim or counterclaim can't appeal unless the claimed amount exceeds $1,000.

Also, you'll have to file the appeal within 30 days of entry of judgment. The entry of judgment occurs when the court enters the judgment into the court records, not when the judge announces or writes the decision. You must comply with this and other rules or lose your appeal rights. So if you're confused about the process or how to find the date you'll use to calculate the filing deadline, talk with the court clerk or a local attorney.

Example. Warren received the small claims judgment in the mail and filed an appeal 30 days later. Warren missed the deadline to file the appeal because the judgment was entered 35 days beforehand. Warren failed to account for mailing time.

Will the court collect my judgment for me?

No. You'll be responsible for all collection efforts. Before pursuing a small claims court case, you'll want to evaluate whether the defendant has assets you can seize after winning the case. A debtor with nothing you can take is called "judgment proof," and pursuing an action won't make sense unless the debtor acquires property and income in the future.

Learn more about determining whether you can collect before suing in small claims court.

Can state exemption laws stop me from seizing the defendant's property?

Yes. Every state allows debtors to protect essential property from creditors, such as household goods, a percentage of income, and some equity in a car and home, although the specific property protected varies greatly. You'll find these protections in your state's exemption statutes. In most states, the same exemptions protect assets from creditors in and outside bankruptcy.

Learn more about why you shouldn't sue unless you can collect the judgment.

How to Find More About Washington Small Claims Court

Most courts include filing instructions on the court website or provide self-help services. For additional resources, try the Washington Court's small claims court webpage or the Attorney General's small claims court site. You can also view Washington statutory law online on the Washington State Legislature's webpage to view the statutory codes. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. §§ 12.36.010 to 12.40.120; 3.66.040.)

For detailed help with case filing, court strategy, and collecting a money judgment, see Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court by Attorney Cara O'Neill (Nolo).

Need More Help?

Did you know Nolo has made the law accessible for over fifty years? It's true, and we want to ensure you find what you need. Below, you'll find more articles explaining how small claim cases work. And don't forget that our small claims homepage is the best place to start if you have other questions!

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We wholeheartedly encourage research and learning, but online articles can't address all issues or the facts of your case, and the law can change. The best way to protect yourself is by hiring a local lawyer.

Updated November 27, 2023