I was surprised at a recent social gathering of non-attorneys, just how many people were confused about the structure of our Court system. Some were confused about the difference between criminal cases and civil cases. This short commentary will address only the State Courthouse and my next blog will address cases at the Federal level.
There are a variety of types of cases that get filed at the Courthouse. There are landlord/tenant disputes, contract disputes, personal injury cases, probate cases, criminal cases, juvenile cases, dependency cases, business disputes, and foreclosure actions, just to name a few. Certain judges hear certain types of cases. I will only be addressing personal injury cases and cases involving damages to one’s property.
First, there are three levels of the State Courthouse for purposes of filing a lawsuit, based on value of the case the Plaintiff is seeking. The Plaintiff is the one that files the lawsuit and the Defendant is the one being sued and that must respond to the lawsuit. The lowest level of cases are called ‘Small Claims Court’, also known as ‘Summary Claims’, and the Plaintiff in these cases are stating that the total value of the damages they are seeking are less than $5000.00. In these court proceedings, one can generally find many people handling the suits themselves, also known as “pro se”, which means, “for ones own behalf”. We, at Harris Guidi and Rosner, do handle cases on behalf of our clients in Small Claims, generally, as it relates to property damage. If the at-fault parties’ insurance company is unwilling to compensate our client sufficiently, for their damages to their automobile or for their diminished value caused by the accident, so long as the personal injury element has been resolved, we will seek such recoveries in this Court.
Second, if the damages being sought are in excess of $5000.00, but less than $15,000.00. then the lawsuit is filed in County Court. These are still, generally for our office, cases involving property damages and diminished value claims.
Lastly, there is Circuit Court. The economic criteria for Circuit Court is simply that the Plaintiff is seeking an amount in excess of $15,000.00. In personal injury cases, the Plaintiff is not required, and generally will not, specify the amount they are seeking. They simply state to the Court that they are seeking damages in excess of that threshold. This is where 98% of all personal injury cases are filed, since there is no limit to the amount that can be awarded to the Plaintiff based on the evidence. There are many elements of a personal injury case that is difficult to place an economic value to, such as pain and suffering, which the jury will determine.
In all the levels of the Court, a Plaintiff may request a jury trial. Often times, in Small Claims and in County Court, the parties may agree to have their dispute heard simply by the judge, known as a “Bench Trial”. Generally, from the perspective of the Plaintiff, a Bench Trial may be advantageous if the economics of the damages are clear and there is no emotional or non-economic damages being sought. Bench Trials can usually be set much sooner than a jury trial and last a couple of hours, rather than a couple of days with a Jury Trial. The amount the Plaintiff must pay to the Clerk at the Courthouse increases with each of the levels. Inside the levels of Small Claims, there are minimal filing fees which increase based on the value being sought to recover and these levels increase through the Circuit Court, but only one filing fee level exist at the Circuit Court level for purposes of personal injury cases. If the Plaintiff has a property damage element remaining with their personal injury claim, those are simply added to the lawsuit and must be brought together in the Circuit Court.
Our Court System is one of the best on the Planet and we all should appreciate all the hard work that many who work at the Courthouse, not just attorneys and judges, but all the people from the maintenance staff all the way to the Clerks of the Court and administration, at these institutions. In Duval County, we have a relatively new facility and urge anyone that has not visited it, to take a stroll through the Courthouse.