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How to Win your Washington personal injury case in Small Claims Court: A lawyer's view from the bench

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Apr 20, 2018 | 0 Comments

You were involved in a car accident recently, but it wasn't serious and you weren't injured. You feel you should be compensated, but you really don't want to go to court or pay any money to hire a personal injury attorney. What should you do? 

Go to Small Claims Court. 

For a small amount of money (less than $30), you can file a lawsuit yourself and seek a judgment up to $5,000. That's right—for a pretty small investment, you can potentially earn a lot of money … and you don't have to give any of it to an attorney. 

Of course, small claims court is still court and many people have never been to court before. If you've never been before, even the most basic court procedures can seem bewildering, especially if you don't have an attorney. And in Washington, you legally can't bring an attorney with you, except in very unusual circumstances.

So how do you prevail in your small claims trial? 
​   In addition to practicing law, I serve as a pro tem judge in King County and Snohomish County (a pro tem judge fills in when the regular judge is unavailable). I have presided over hundreds of small claims trials over the past three years, and I have seen what works and what doesn't. Now I can't claim to be an expert because I don't sit as a judge every day, like a regular judge, and I can't claim to have seen every kind of case. 

That said, the following 7 tips should help you win your case. 

1. Don't ignore mediation

Yes, sometimes you win by avoiding the fight altogether. Half a loaf is better than no loaf, something is better than nothing—pick your favorite analogy. Trials are unpredictable, and usually your case is never as strong or as clear-cut or as simple as you think it is. No matter how much you may want to go to battle against that horrible landlord, or your former friend who stiffed you on the loan, do not let emotion get in the way of cold, hard pragmatism. At the very least, during the mediation, you can figure out your opponents' possible defenses if the case does go to trial. 

2. Small Claims Trial is Still a Trial

Yes, the rules are more flexible, and you will get more leeway from the job, but this is still a trial. You will have to present evidence. You will have to organize your exhibits. The Exhibits get marked. The defendant can raise legal objections to your evidence, and the judge rules on the admissibility of your evidence. In other words, this is not a Judge Judy free-for-all. Don't interrupt your opponent (it happens a lot). Don't interrupt the judge (yes, that also happens). Don't use choice expletives right in front of the judge if you lose (sadly, this also happens). 

3. You have to prove your damages

As the plaintiff, you have the burden of proof, but actually you have twoburdens of proof. First, you have to prove that the defendant violated some law—which gets you a judgment. But more importantly, you have to prove that you are entitled to money for this violation. How do you prove that your car sustained $4,000 worth of damages when the defendant rear-ended you? A repair estimate? Is it sufficient? Does the estimate include other repairs that are unrelated to the accident? 

Proving a violation can be hard, but proving your damages can be harder, especially if you don't have enough proof in court.

4. If you forget your evidence at home, it doesn't exist

My freshman government professor told my class before our midterm, “I can't grade what's in your mind. I can only grade what you put on your paper.” If you remember nothing else from this blog, remember this tip. That means, in a car accident case, bring your repair estimate, photos of your car, and your medical bills if you were injured. 

Remember, your case is never as strong as you think, and you have to assume that the defendant will deny every single thing you say and challenge every assumption you have. You have to defend everything you claim.  

5. Organize your evidence

Think about how you want to convince the judge that you're right. Timelines are very helpful—tell the court what happened, when it happened, and where it happened. This will help you organize your thoughts, and the judge will appreciate your organization. The more organized person doesn't always win the trial, but the more organized person generally can present her thoughts more clearly, which makes her arguments more understandable the judge.

I presided over one case where the plaintiff was suing a car dealership for supposedly faulty repairs. When I asked him to present his evidence, he brought up a bunch of folded-up, coffee-stained receipts and notes that looked like they had literally just been in his glove compartment and he put them on the bench—no organization, no explanation, and placed him on the bench in front of me. Long story short, he didn't win. 

You may even want to consider contacting an attorney help you organize your evidence. Even though you can't have an attorney in small claims court, that doesn't mean you can't use an attorney to help you draft the evidence before you come to court.  
  
6. Prepare for the worst-case scenario

Assume the defendant will tell the court you didn't send him all the evidence in advance, even though you have written proof that you did. Assume the court didn't receive any of the evidence that you mailed. Assume that the defendant will ask for a continuance, even though she told you yesterday that she would be ready for trial. (I've seen all of this happen, more than once). Assume that everything will go wrong, and you won't be surprised--or stressed or angry—if it does. 

7. Watch a Small Claims Trial

Many people who come to small claims court have never been to court before, so the whole process of court procedure can be daunting. Coming to court and watching a small claims calendar from beginning to end will probably answer about 90 percent of your procedural questions.

Granted, many people barely want to come to court once, let alone twice, and watching small claims trials aren't that exciting (there's a reason Netflix doesn't stream “Law and Order: Small Claims Trials”). But if you're serious about filing a lawsuit, is two days of your life really so much to ask?

Good luck on your case! But if you're feeling overwhelmed about the process, please contact our Seattle personal injury attorneys for a free consultation

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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