General District Court or Circuit Court - Which is Better for Your Personal Injury Case in Virginia

Author: Charles L. Allen, Richmond Personal Injury Lawyer

In Virginia, a  person cannot force an insurance company pay a settlement for their personal injury claim. Instead, the only right an injured person has is a trial to seek a judgment on their behalf against the party that caused the injury.[1] Two different state courts typically decide my clients cases; either General District Court or Circuit Court.  Let me describe some of the differences between these two courts.
 
General District Court's jurisdiction is limited to an amount that does not exceed $25,000.  In other words, the Court can award any amount from nothing at all up to $25,000. [2] Also, the amount of the award is decided by a judge, not a jury.  Usually a trial date is available in General District Court earlier than in Circuit Court.
 
Circuit Court trials are presided over by judges, but the amount of the award to compensate the injured person is determined by a jury composed of seven people (unless both sides agree to have the judge decide the amount).  The original jurisdiction of a Circuit Court is for any amount that exceeds $4,500.  The potential award to compensate an injured person is not limited to $25,000.  Instead, the amount of the award is limited only by the "ad damnum" (amount requested) in the lawsuit. This amount is entirely up to the discretion of the plaintiff's lawyer. Of course, it is for the jury to determine whether the ad damnum amount, or a lesser amount, should be awarded.
 
A significant difference between the two courts relates to testimony regarding medical treatment and the diagnosis of injuries.  In General District Court, that evidence can be presented through sworn affidavits attached to either the medical chart or a report prepared by the treating physician.[3]  Obviously, such documents cannot be cross-examined by an attorney defending the case.  Furthermore, the cost of securing this testimony is fairly modest.
 
In Circuit Court, however, evidence regarding medical treatment and injuries cannot be admitted at trial by affidavit.  Such documents are considered inadmissible hearsay. Instead, testimony must be presented by a treating medical provider either in person during trial, or by a deposition taken before hand.  In both instances, the medical provider is subject to cross-examination by the defense attorney hired by the insurance company.  Furthermore, these treating medical providers are considered "experts", and consequently charge for their time.  It is not unusual for a treating doctor to require several thousand dollars to appear live at trial to testify.  Generally a deposition, taken in their office before the trial date, is less expensive but still typically costs a significant amount of money.  The cost of securing this testimony is an "expense of litigation".  Although lawyers are permitted to advance such expenses on a client's behalf, our ethical rules require that a client ultimately be responsible for all of the expenses incurred preparing and presenting their case at trial.
 
In summary, some of the advantages of General District Court are a quicker resolution at less cost to the client.  Some advantages to Circuit Court include trial by a jury of one's peers as well as the potential to recover more than $25,000.
 
A final comment regarding General District Court is that either side has the absolute right to appeal any judgment rendered by a General District Court judge (provided the amount in controversy is greater than $50.00).  Such an appeal, if taken by either party, is heard in the Circuit Court. The jury that determines the amount to award the injured person in Circuit Court does so without any knowledge of the judgment previously rendered by the General District Court judge.
 
About the Author: Charles Allen is a Richmond car accident lawyer with the Richmond personal injury law firm of Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen. He has handled injury cases for Virginians for more than 25 years. Mr. Allen works on cases primarily from the Richmond, Mechanicsville and Short Pump office.

[1] Workers compensation claims, however, are adjudicated by the Workers Compensation Commission, not in these    two courts. 2 See information about General District Court in the website of the Supreme Court of Virginia, at "Virginia's Judicial System" at http://www.courts.state.va.us/courts/gd/home.html. 3 For Va statute allowing this, see Va. Code §16.1-88.2 at  http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+16.1-88.2.
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