Small claims - proving your case (Plaintiff edition)
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
So, you have decided to take your dispute to a Washington State small claims court.
(Another article discusses when that might make sense or not)
The first thing to do will be to file and serve the case in the local small claims court. After that the defendant will need to be served with at least a copy of the small claims filing and possibly additional documents depending on which county you are in (e.g. a date of hearing, required forms from the Court, etc.). If you haven't yet done so, then now will be the time to prepare your case for presentation. Finally, it will be time to attend your small claims hearing.
Filing and serving
Each local county has some degree of local rules that govern how small claims court proceeds to hear cases. The first step will almost always be to file the small claims notice / case. The case will be filed in the local district court's small claims court. Generally, "local" here will mean the county where at least one Defendant resides.
The district court may have a small claims "division" or just indicate that it is the small claims court of the County. The specific nomenclature varies slightly. The district court clerk's office, which may itself have a specific small claims court clerk (but not all counties), will be able to direct you to the appropriate location if it is not obvious.
After following the local requirements for filing, the defendants will need to be served. The defendants may be served personally or by registered or certified mail with the return receipt being signed for by the defendant (see RCW 12.40.040). Personal service should be done by a person other than the Plaintiff directly, and, the better practice is usually to have a professional licensed process server do so. Such process servers also can assist in locating a defendant if his or her location is not readily known (a process called skip tracing). Service must be done at least 10 days before the hearing. Strive for a longer period.
Preparation for your hearing
First, it isn't possible for me to write about each detail of how to prove all cases. Every case is unique. There are, however, some general ideas that you may be able to use to assist in preparation. This is not intended to be legal advice and should not be treated as such.
Legal cases are, in part, a series of causes of action. In simplified terms, legal cases are one or more legal claims (i.e. causes of action) that, if the facts support the claim, the plaintiff is entitled to a judgment. Most small claims cases will be based on broken promises (breach of contract), property "theft" (conversion - "theft" legally is usually a criminal term), damage to property (also usually conversion).
Small claims courts were invented to be a quick remedy for smaller value disputes. As such there are fewer necessary procedural rules, and no real expectation that the Plaintiff be able to name legal theories. The Plaintiff will put forward the facts and the judge will determine if those facts warrant legal relief. The Defendant will be given the opportunity to dispute what the Plaintiff claims to be true. In that sense, the hearing is a battle of stories. The judge is the referee that determines which story is more true.
Judges, like every other person, lack a magical looking glass that can show them what is true. The Plaintiff will need to prove his or her case by a preponderance of the evidence. What does that mean? It means that the relevant evidence is at least a little bit more on the Plaintiff's side. In a breach of contract case that would (at least) mean that the Plaintiff proves, at least a little bit more, that there was a contract (written or oral), that the Plaintiff did what was required of the Plaintiff under the contract, that the Defendant did not do what was required under the contract, and what dollar amount the Plaintiff should be entitled to.
When preparing for the small claims hearing the Plaintiff will need to be prepared to show, with as much evidence as possible, what the facts are. Testifying about what was seen or heard is important. Having another witness, especially one that has no reason to be dishonest, testify is even more convincing. Pictures or videos can be convincing depending on the circumstance (be sure that you bring enough copies for the judge and the defendants).
Proving the value of something that needs to be replaced can sometimes be done by bringing in receipts of what was paid when the item was purchased or advertisements of that item for sale elsewhere. Similarly, medical bills for injuries sustained or proof of lost-wages for any time lost from employment as a result of an act by the Defendant (attendance in Court does generally not count toward this).
Before you even get to Court, a Plaintiff should consider putting together a binder of numerically marked exhibits (i.e. proof) with copies for the judge, the plaintiff, and the defendant. This allows a Plaintiff to quickly bring to the judge's attention what you want to present (e.g. "The wagon that the Defendant borrowed had been purchased just last year for $57. I have the receipt marked as Exhibit 3"). Having a written plan for how you want to discuss each of these exhibits, and possibly what witnesses will reference them, helps be sure that the case stays on track and that nothing is forgotten.
Larger non-document physical proof can also be important to proving a case. Small claims cases won't involve a murder weapon, but bringing in the defective pipe that a defendant plumber installed can be more convincing than a picture that might not reveal the alleged defects.
Once you get to the actual small claims hearing (there will likely be a preliminary hearing where the judge attempts to settle the matter by agreement) be sure to arrive a little early with all of your exhibits and witnesses ready. It is a good idea to confirm with the Court a day or two before to ensure the hearing will be available and when you will be able to present your case.
Disputing, when it is your turn to speak, what the Defendant claimed often requires thinking about or investigating the claim a bit before being able to dispute it. Shouting out "that's not true" isn't persuasive. In a more formal trial setting, lawyers will try to "impeach" the other side's witnesses by showing that the witness is being dishonest based on prior statements from the witness, or that their ability to observe was hindered. In small claims hearings it is not likely that the parties will be allowed to directly question the others (it is up to the judge). Politely suggesting "I was there, and do not recall witness X being outside. How could she have seen anything" might both assist in proving the case as well as cause the judge to ask the witness follow up questions. Most judges are experienced enough in litigation that they'll naturally be inclined to ask questions to verify that a witness is speaking from direct observation.
Quick tips on courtroom decorum:
The judge is, unless specifically told otherwise, addressed as "your honor."
Dress appropriately. This means that your attire shows the Court that you respect the process and the people involved. Men, wear a suite and tie if you have one that fits. Business formal. Remove your hat.
Try to arrange childcare if possible. Courtrooms are not exciting for small children, and often involve a great deal of being expected to wait quietly. This expectation is rarely, and understandably, often not met.
If the hearing is conducted via remote video (such as Zoom), then see point #2 above just the same.
Silence your phone and don't play with it. If another hearing happens before yours, then it is an excellent opportunity to observe and learn. This is probably one of your few experiences being in a courtroom, and you can learn a tremendous amount just by paying attention to a hearing or two before yours.
The local county district court website is a good starting point to find information about small claims.
RCW Title 12 provides the legal framework
NOTHING ON THIS IS INTENDED TO BE LEGAL ADVICE. This is an attempt to provide general legal information. If you need legal advice you should consult with an attorney directly about your specific legal need. We cannot directly represent individuals in small claims court, but can assist in compiling what you will need specific to your case.