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Sunday, January 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How to win the small-claims game

Seattle Times staff reporter

Someone done you wrong? Turned deadbeat? Wrecked your stuff? You've seen it on TV, and now you want to take your malefactors to Small Claims Court.

It's the American way. Hey, we didn't get to be the most litigious nation on Earth for nothing. We don't just like suing each other, we like to watch shows about people suing each other. Most of them are modeled on the small-claims format: "Judge Judy," "Judge Joe Brown," "Judge Mills Lane," "Judge Hackett," "The People's Court." ... We're here to help you get off the sidelines and into the Small Claims Game:

TIP: Go to Web site (www.metrokc.gov/kcdc/) or the phone tree (206-296-3550) for general info first.

• Who and what's fair game? Individuals, businesses, partnerships and corporations, but not the state of Washington. Money-related claims up to $4,000.

• Know your limitations. Make sure you haven't blown the statute of limitations on your type of claim. (Find it out in the RCW — that's Revised Code of Washington — chapter 4.16, available online. See "Resources" box below.)

TIP: If you're suing a company or a business, ask who the registered agent is, so that you can have the correct name on the papers you file — and the ones you serve.

• Do the paperwork: Fill out a Notice of Small Claim form at the King County District Court small-claims clerk's office. The fee is $10-$25, and you can get it back if you win. You have to file in the county where your defendant lives; or for a car wreck or bad checks, the place the incident occurred. (Get back to the RCW for the right venue/jurisdiction.)

TIP: Clerks can't give you their opinions or advice about your case — not who to sue or if you have a solid case. Serve 'em up: Slap the defendant with a Notice of Small Claims. Do it with registered or certified mail, the sheriff's department (206-296-3800; it costs $17 plus mileage at .35 per mile), a process server (they're in the phone book, average $65), or someone over 18 not involved with the case. You can't do it yourself.

• Settle? Sometimes the prospect of a trip to court can make people more reasonable. You don't get your filing fee back if you settle and cancel the trial, though. Go directly to the trained mediator. But let's assume you don't need no steenking resolution. Proceed to court.

• Be prepared. Bring receipts, documents, photos, contracts, estimates — anything concrete that could be considered proof. You're unlikely to get a second chance (a continuance) if you forget something. Your word may not be enough. Witnesses are OK.

TIP: Individual judges vary on whether they accept hearsay — statements from people who aren't there in court. King County District Court Judge Mark Chow does. He suggests calling to find out where the judge in your case stands on that.

No mouthpiece: The fun of small claims is that you represent yourself. That makes it accessible for regular people who can't afford expensive rhyming lawyers. Unfortunately, you don't get to cross-examine people, declare anyone a "hostile witness" or give a passionate closing argument. That's "The Practice."

• Hope for a no-show. You could win a default judgment against your defendant!

• Be ready for a taste of your own medicine. The defendant can make a counter-claim against you. Try to anticipate the possibilities and plan for them.

• If you win: Collect your dough. The court doesn't do it for you. If the loser doesn't cough it up in 30 days or the timespan the judge sets, you can pay small fees in District or Superior civil courts to file a transcript of your judgment — and possibly garnish the deadbeat's wages or put a lien on his property.

King County District Court Judge Mark Chow judges small claims and has more than 12 years on the bench. He says TV judge shows are pretty accurate in how they depict the application of law, but: "One, they don't have enough time on the TV, because there's commercials. And second there's not one (judge) I've seen on there that appears to keep their composure. They're mean! They're condescending, I think."

King County District Court Manager Helen Grayson has seen some real small-claims whoppers in 30 years. For instance, "somebody bringing a piece of carpet in that dogs had went on, asking the judge to smell it."

Chow and Grayson were sources for some of the information on this page.

Number of small claims cases filed in King County in 2001 (the most recent year for available stats): 7,111. Of those, the number ending in default: 1,182. Other pre-trial dispositions, such as settlements: 1,535. Judge decisions: 1,489. Source: Administrative Office for the Courts.

It takes about three months from filing to courtroom in King County.

Most cases tend to be landlord-tenant disputes (about forking over the security deposit, for instance), along with some auto accidents and bad loans.

Trained mediators help resolve lots of cases before they ever get to the courtroom. "About 80 percent are successful in coming up with a resolution, and there's a high percentage of follow-through, too," Judge Mark Chow estimates. Two reasons why: Mediators hear things not immediately pertinent to the legal issue, and mediators can suggest compromises that the small-claims judges can't. Judges can only make monetary decisions. (It's free, in most cases, from the nonprofit King County Dispute Resolution Center. Call 206-443-9603 for info.)

Errors in judgment

Small Claims is informal, but it ain't Hillbilly Court. Judges are supposed to be impartial, but they're human, too. Hooters T-shirt and cutoffs can be distracting. Also: Shoes are good. And talk to the judge, not your opponent. Hollering at each other is a no-no.

Resources:

The Washington Courts at www.courts.wa.gov

King County District Court at www.metrokc.gov/kcdc/smclhome.htm

Books: "Small Claims Court Guide for Washington," Donald D. Stuart, Self-Counsel Press, $8.95.

"Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court," Ralph Warner, Nolo, $24.95

Keep your cool. People get nervous representing themselves and speaking in public. They get angry if they lose. Doesn't help. "I've had people go out the door and slam the door. I'll call them back in and have them apologize to the court and everyone in it," Chow says.

Generally, you don't get compensated for your time, for pain and suffering, or unquantifiable things like that in Small Claims Court.

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