The Difference Between District and Circuit Courts in Virginia
When negotiations break down and the insurance company will not offer what we feel is a full and fair settlement amount for your claim, the next step in your case is to file a lawsuit and begin the litigation process. Your attorney must decide in which court your case should be filed. While this may seem simple, selecting the appropriate court is an important decision that is based on the individual circumstances of your case. Selecting the appropriate forum for your case can have important consequences as the litigation proceeds.
Virginia has two levels of trial courts: general district court and circuit court. While the law governing substantive issues in the case is the same in either setting, there are several important differences worth noting. In this article, I will highlight six of these differences.
The first difference is whether the case will be tried by a judge or a jury. In general district court, litigants must have a bench trial. At a bench trial, the presiding judge evaluates the evidence, determines what happened and makes the final decision regarding liability and damages. In circuit court, either side may request a jury trial. Seven citizens, sitting as jurors, become the fact finders, listen to the evidence, render a verdict and decide the amount of the award. At a jury trial, the judge simply rules on issues of law and the admissibility of evidence. The judge’s role in circuit court when there is a jury is as a sort of umpire or referee, but not as the decision maker. That’s the role of the jury. Typically, district courts have greater availability to schedule bench trials, the presentation of evidence is less formal and judges who hear personal injury cases regularly are more efficient.
The second difference is the amount you can seek or recover in each court. The maximum recovery in district court is $25,000 (not including interest). That means that the largest verdict a district court judge can award for your injuries is $25,000. In circuit court there is no jurisdictional limit and recovery is capped only by the amount claimed in your lawsuit. If the value of your case exceeds or may exceed $25,000 the only option is to file in circuit court.
A third important difference is the time it takes to get a trial date. In district court, you will normally get a trial date in six months or less. A circuit court trial date will usually be at least twelve months from the date of filing, and sometimes a lot longer. In some cases, the speed of obtaining an early trial date can be critical. However, since either side can appeal a verdict in general district court, sometimes your attorney may choose to go directly to circuit court to avoid the other side from exercising its automatic right to an appeal after you get a favorable verdict in district court.
A fourth important difference is the ability to find out what the other side’s evidence will be in advance of trial. Attorneys call this process “discovery”. In district court, discovery is very limited. The parties appear on the trial date, call witnesses to testify, and argue the merits of the case. Often there are surprises. In circuit court, the rules governing discovery are thorough and complex. Discovery includes producing documents, taking depositions and exchanging written interrogatories. While each side is able to learn a tremendous amount of information about the strength of the other party’s case, the discovery process can be expensive and time consuming. If your case is straightforward, the ability to avoid the time and expense of the discovery process may make filing in district court the better option.
A fifth important difference is the manner of presentation of evidence. Virginia law allows an injured person who filed the lawsuit in district court to introduce medical records and bills via sworn statement from the health care provider or custodian of records for the medical facility. In circuit court, testimony regarding records, bills and treatment typically requires an expert witness who will charge for their time. The cost savings afforded by the ability to introduce important evidence in your case without calling a live witness may make district court the better option. On the other hand, if your medical care was complicated or extensive, having a treating medical provider appear in court and explain it in person may be the best option to maximize your recovery. If the other side challenges whether your injuries were caused by the collision or whether your treatment was really necessary or was excessive, then you may also want to have the doctor present so he or she can explain these matters to a jury.
A sixth important difference is cost. As mentioned above, circuit court can be more expensive because of the discovery process (cost of depositions, transcripts, etc.) and presentation of evidence (having to pay expert witnesses to be present at trial, etc.), but even the cost of filing the lawsuit is significantly different depending on which court you choose. For instance, filing a lawsuit in the City of Richmond for $25,000 against one defendant is estimated to cost $58.00 in district court but $138.00 in circuit court. If you file for a larger amount than this in the circuit court, the cost of filing can be much higher.
In sum, the differences between district and circuit court in Virginia are significant. Value, time and expense are just some of the important factors that must be considered before the decision on where to file is made. The experienced attorneys of Allen and Allen regularly practice in both district and circuit courts, and help our clients make this decision every day. If you or someone you know is injured in a motor vehicle collision, let us help you position your case in the court best suited for your needs.
About the Author: Paul Hux is the managing trial attorney for the Allen & Allen Chesterfield, Virginia office. He specializes in cases involving car accidents, truck accidents and boating accidents. With a strong work ethic, he is dedicated to meeting the needs of every client.
 Since most cases that are filed are still settled without actually going to trial, most of the time filing the lawsuit is just a step in negotiations.
 The General District Court in some areas may also have a small claims division which can handles cases only up to a value of $5,000.00.
 The jurisdictional limits of the General District Court are contained in Virginia Code § 16.1-77 which is available online at: http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+16.1-77 .
 Va. Code § 16.1-88.2 allows the plaintiff to introduce records and bills via sworn statement. This statute can be viewed at: https://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+16.1-88.2 .
 If you think about how much a doctor typically charges to see you for a few minutes, you can imagine what a doctor charges to take several hours from their day to come to court and testify in a trial.
 The Virginia Courts website provides a “cost calculator” from which you can estimate the cost of filing a particular type of lawsuit for a certain amount of money. For Circuit Court, see http://webdev.courts.state.va.us/cgi-bin/DJIT/ef_djs_ccfees_calc.cgi. For general district court, see http://webdev.courts.state.va.us/cgi-bin/DJIT/ef_djs_gdfees_calc.cgi.