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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Baner

Small claims - DIY lawyering FTW

What is small claims?

Small claims is a civil department of district courts of Washington State. It is a less formal avenue for quickly solving some disputes. A small claims court can award judgments for money only and only up to $5,000 or $10,000. It is $10,000 for a "natural person" (i.e. a living, breathing person) or $5,000 for others (i.e. corporations, LLCs, etc.).

Is small claims right for you?

There are a few important questions that must be answered before small claims should be considered:

  1. Do you want the judge to award you money only or are you looking for something else such as determining whether the neighbor's fence is on your property? The Court can only award money. Nothing else.

  2. Do you want the judge to award you more than $5,000 or $10,000 referenced earlier? The Court has a limit on how much it can award. That does not mean that the Court cannot disregard the amounts in excess of the claim.

Some concrete situations may help explain this and provide more information to keep in mind.

"I am the only owner and employee of a landscaping corporation. One of my clients owes me $12,000! What can I do?

A corporation is a person, and not a natural person. The corporation is owed the money, not the individual owner of the corporation. Therefore, the judge would only be capable of awarding $5,000. That might be all you want to do, especially if the client is otherwise financially capable of immediately paying and will do so if ordered.

However, if it is a relatively straight forward set of facts to prove then a district court action may be appropriate. Note, however, that a corporation may be required to have an attorney represent it.

Conclusion: Consult with an attorney before deciding

"My husband and I rented our home to a couple, and that couple left with unpaid rent $3,000 and $10,000 in damages

This couple are natural persons, and thus the $10,000 limit applies. $13,000 is more than the small claims court can award. However, that does not mean small claims court is unavailable. The court could award the $10,000 limit. The couple would be foregoing $3,000, in exchange for a speedy good-enough resolution of a potentially difficult to prove set of facts (damage to real property beyond "normal wear and tear" isn't always obvious nor is a dollar figure for that damage).

A rental may also have a contract that includes an attorney fee provisions. Furthermore, homeowner insurance may available as well.

Conclusion: Consult with an attorney before deciding.

"My neighbor borrowed my $500 mower, and returned it broken."

The amount involved is well within the limits. A small claims court can make the neighbor pay for the broken mower to be repaired or replaced.

Conclusion: Small claims court is the place to go if it cannot be settled between the two.

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