How to get legal advice for a small claims case
November 20, 2020 11:37 AM   Subscribe

You, of course, are not my lawyer. I'm being sued in small claims court for something I did not do and am not at fault for. A third party has already been found at fault. This has already been determined by both parties' insurance. I'm in Washington State. I need a legal advice but am having a hard time finding it.

I'm keeping some details out for obvious reasons. Despite that I'm in no way at fault, the plaintiffs are suing me in small claims court for some reason, I think originally with the hope that I would not appear, because they failed to serve the summons properly the first time. I'm not sure if they are just really out to lunch or if they are trying to commit insurance fraud. Because of the pandemic, rescheduling and the plaintiffs' own inability to get it together, we have been in virtual court a couple of times for mediation/to schedule a date. A trial was supposed to happen soon and I need to appear, but I'm told that when I do it will likely be rescheduled. The court is a mess right now. I have followed all the rules of the process, the plaintiffs have not.

I am pretty confident when we finally get to a trial before a judge and I am able to share evidence that they have the wrong person, this will be dismissed pretty quickly. The problem is this has been dragging on now for over a year, I have had to miss work, it's a sh*tshow. I've been told by the court that the only path forward is to get a trial date with a judge.

I've tried using my work assistance program to find a lawyer to give me advice, because I can't keep missing work to find that the plaintiffs haven't appeared, don't have evidence prepared, or the entire courthouse has shut down because of covid exposure. Lawyers are not responding to my phone calls/emails when they find out it is small claims, and I can't find legal advice applicable to Washington State that addresses my issue online. Where can I look and who can help me? I can't afford their claim if I'm a no-show, so I can't just ignore it. I want to know if I have any rights in this process or there is a procedure I'm not aware of to get this wrapped up. Thank you in advance.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer to Law & Government (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I mean, it's small claims, right? The point of small claims is that you don't need a lawyer. I know it's annoying, but I would not probably employ a lawyer for the case.
posted by bbqturtle at 11:46 AM on November 20, 2020

Best answer: I believe the OP wants advice on how to prepare their evidence, how to navigate the court procedures, etc. See the last sentence of the Ask.

we have been in virtual court a couple of times for mediation

The advice you receive here may be more useful if you tell what happened in the 2 or 3 mediation sessions you've already had.

The standard advice is to look for a clinic at a Washington law school.
posted by JimN2TAW at 11:57 AM on November 20, 2020

First things first - are you insured? Have you let your insurance company know about this legal action against you?

Secondly - in my professional experience, courthouse staff usually want to help and will guide people toward information or resources. Do you have the contact info the judge's clerk/assistant? "I can't pay my bills if I have to miss more time for hearings that just push the date forward" is something that King County is very sympathetic to. (The flip side of that is that the court system is overloaded and underfunded.)

Thirdly, legal aid is your friend and there are a variety of organizations that may be able to help you more than EAP referrals: legal-resources-for-king-county-residents.aspx
posted by stowaway at 12:03 PM on November 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Washington State Bar Association has a list of resources for finding an attorney. Also I might ask if anyone you know knows a attorney that goes to that courthouse regularly who might give you advice about court procedures there or who to speak to who can be helpful.

This is not legal advice but the next time you go in for a conference I would ask for the claim to be dismissed because the plaintiff has failed to appear, sometimes in my experience you have to be firm with court personal and judges as there is a tendency to do what is easiest - which is to adjourn the matter. But if you explain that you need to miss work, they haven't appeared x number of times you may get better results.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 12:10 PM on November 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

SpaceWarp13 has great (non-legal) advice, but I'd add to that by suggesting you countersue in small claims for lost wages, since you have reason to think and can prove that this is frivolous, malicious or fraudulent.
posted by kate4914 at 12:34 PM on November 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi, thank you all for the responses so far. To answer your questions: Yes, I'm insured and my insurance co. has helped me prepare evidence. I do have the contact info for the court and have shared that this has been a burden, I get sympathy but no help. I have evidence prepared, and feel confident about the actual trial...the issue is that it's taking a while to get there. Mediation went nowhere because the plaintiffs story is bonkers and they are sticking to it, and the mediators felt it was best to let the judge handle it.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 12:36 PM on November 20, 2020

If you are insured your insurer should hire a lawyer to either assist you informally or move the case out of small claims into the next higher court so that the lawyer can represent you formally. The lawyer will know how to do a motion that will show what you want to show before the hearing takes place. If it is open and shut, as you say, the motion should shut it.
posted by yclipse at 12:48 PM on November 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: IAAL, IANYL, IANAWashingtonL. You should be able to hire a lawyer for an hour or so to discuss the case, any dangerous angles that might not be apparent to you, and any ways you might use to get out sooner rather than later. Small Claims can be unexpectedly dangerous, because the judges tend to let both sides do things that are not, strictly speaking, in accord with the rules of evidence and procedure. (In some places, the judges don't even have formal legal training.)

The cost of an hour consult is not nothing, but compared to losing multiple days of work, I'd guess it's worth it. You might also consider moving the case to regular court, where a lawyer (including, possibly, a lawyer hired by your insurer) could represent you, and where your crazy pro se opponent may be unable to properly jump through the hoops.

In most cases, it's not fruitful to try to counterclaim for damages caused by a frivolous suit (but a Washington lawyer would be able to tell you if this is one of the exceptions). It's unfortunate, but the burden of defending a bogus suit still falls on you, so you should do what you can to reduce the overall burden, even if that is to hire somebody to deal with it, rather than wasting your own time and dealing with it inefficiently (or even worse, failing to deal with some part of it and ultimately losing because of that).
posted by spacewrench at 1:05 PM on November 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

have you actually filed a motion to dismiss? [IANYL, IANAWashingtonL]
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:25 PM on November 20, 2020

Best answer: As yclipse says above, your insurer may have a duty to defend you in court on this matter. If you ask the insurer if they have a duty to defend, you may not get a straight answer. I suggest you call your state’s insurance commissioner and ask them. Then call the insurer back and tell them what they are required to do. Emphasize that your information comes directly from the insurance commissioner, as that will dramatically increase your insurer’s responsiveness.
posted by KayQuestions at 1:31 PM on November 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

>have you actually filed a motion to dismiss?

Since small claims doesn't allow lawyers, there are no motions. The most I've seen in my limited experience is an ersatz continuance, in the form of rescheduling the case.

Reading between the lines, though, the standard is "preponderance of evidence," which means who has the better facts. I can't imagine it'll be easy (if even possible) for them to bend "the insurance companies agreed it was this other guy" into responsibility on your part, but you know the story better than we do.
posted by rhizome at 2:55 PM on November 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Many, many years ago, my roommates and I took an ex-roommate to small claims court using Nolo Press resources. Looks like they are still in business. [we won, by the way]
posted by elmay at 4:00 PM on November 20, 2020

Have you been to Washington LawHelp? This page has information on what to do if you're being sued in small claims court.
CLEAR gives free legal advice if you qualify financially; if not they should be able to refer you to someone else. You can also always call 211 and say you are looking for legal aid.
posted by assenav at 4:27 PM on November 20, 2020

Best answer: I work for the Oregon State Bar, but I am not a lawyer. Many lawyers are licensed in Oregon and Washington. You might want to contact the Oregon State Bar's Lawyer Referral Service and ask for someone who is licensed in both states. They can speak to you for $35 for a half-hour consultation and tell you what you should know.
posted by tacodave at 4:42 PM on November 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Following up on the best answers, make the most of your hour by preparing in advance.
* Have your documentation sorted and with sticky notes so you can access each one as quickly as possible.
* Have your story written up in a timeline format, followed by
* Your questions (with room to make notes) in some kind of hierarchical order, so if s/he says "No" to Question 3, then you can cross out Q3a, Q3b and Q3b.1
* Last question: is there anything else I should have asked you,or that you would advise me to do, that I haven't asked about already?

(I made the most of a free 1/2 hour with a lawyer when organising my divorce from a rat-bastard - it was very valuable, even though free).
posted by b33j at 1:28 AM on November 21, 2020 [3 favorites]

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