LARGER ROLE FOR SMALL COURTS: New Law Means Faster and Less Expensive Resolution of Cases Worth Less Than $25,000

  • June 30, 2011
  • Blog

In March 2011, the Virginia General Assembly passed a new law increasing the jurisdictional maximum limit for a lawsuit in General District Court from $15,000 to $25,000.[1] Effective July 1, 2011, a person with a civil claim – including  personal injury claims – may sue in a General District Court for up $25,000.  At present, only civil personal injury claims for $15,000 or less are filed in General District Court; personal injury claims seeking more than $15,000 must be filed in a Circuit Court.[2]

General District Courts do not conduct jury trials; instead, all cases are decided by a judge.  In the Circuit Court, a case may be decided by a judge, but if either side requests it, then the judge only decides what evidence and what instructions of law the jury hears, but the jury decides the actual verdict in the case .  Sometimes in Circuit Court all the parties waive their right to a jury trial, and allow the Judge to determine the verdict.  (Whether in General District Court or in Circuit Court, if only a judge alone decides the case, this is referred to as a “bench trial”).

Virginia law specifies what type of matters can be considered and decided in each type of court.  This is called the “jurisdiction” of that court.  If the type of matter is specified as a dollar amount or limit, this is called the “jurisdictional limit” of that court.  As the lowest level of court in Virginia, General District Courts have always been the required venue to try smaller value cases, including smaller value personal injury cases.[3] Smaller value personal injury claims would include soft-tissue type injuries or whiplash injuries where the plaintiff made a full recovery in a relatively short period of time.  With the rising cost of health care and rate of inflation over the years, the current limit of $15,000 in the General District Court has meant that fewer and fewer personal injury claims could be brought in that court.   The new, higher $25,000 jurisdictional limit is a significant increase, and as a result General District Courts may become the preferred court for smaller value personal injury claims.

The primary advantages of General District Court versus Circuit Court are that it’s much faster and it’s much cheaper (the expenses are significantly less.  It’s much faster because the trial date is much sooner.   A suit filed in General District Court is usually assigned trial date within 2 to 3 months after filing suit.  For a case filed in Circuit Court, the trial date is often 12 months or longer from the date the case is filed and served.

General District Court is much cheaper because both the court costs and the expenses to present the case at trial are much less.   At present, filing and service fees to begin a case in General District Court for a $15,000 personal injury claim are about $56.00; to begin the same case in Circuit Court, filing and service fees are about $136.00.[4] General District Court also allows medical evidence of injuries to be presented in a simpler manner using affidavits to admit medical records and bills from health care providers, instead of requiring actual testimony of the doctor as is required in Circuit Court.  (If you think of what a doctor charges you to see you for only a few minutes, you can imagine what it costs to have a doctor come to court to wait and then testify and be out of his office for several hours.  Often it costs several thousand dollars for each doctor.)

General District Court also allows only very limited “discovery”.  Discovery is the process by which one side in a lawsuit can require the other side (or someone else) to provide certain information, facts, opinions, documents, or other things which may be relevant to the claims in the lawsuit.   Most of the most common methods that the rules of court allow for discovery in Circuit Court — such as interrogatories (written questions that must be answered under oath), depositions (oral testimony taken under oath and recorded),  and requests for admissions (written requests that another person in a lawsuit admit certain facts as true under oath) – are not allowed in Generla District Court.   This saves time and money, and generally makes trials much simpler and shorter.   However, in General District Court, the parties to the lawsuit are allowed to issue a “subpoena duces tecum” to obtain documents and other tangible things from the other party or third parties.

Also, judges are generally consistent and predictable with their rulings and verdicts, and fair to both sides.  Trying a case in General District Court allows an attorney to prepare the client as to what to expect and to give a better prediction of the likely result from the judge. With a jury, however, you never know what to expect because you will always get a different jury panel for every trial.

The only real disadvantage of trying a personal injury case in General District Court is that any judgment can be appealed “as of right” to the Circuit Court level.[5] So if the other side in the lawsuit is dissatisfied with the verdict, they just have to ask for an appeal and they automatically get it.  The appeal will be heard in the Circuit Court and heard as if the trial in General District Court never happened.   (In law, this is called a “trial de novo”, meaning a completely new trial.)   If the decision of the General District Court judge is appealed, then the Circuit Court case will usually add another year to the final resolution of the case.   Most of the time General District Court decisions are not appealed, because the losing party thinks the out come is likely to be the same in Circuit Court an doesn’t want to incur the time and expense of another trial.

The attorneys in our Firm are able to try smaller value cases in General District Court without spending a lot of time and money, and are able to get quicker results.  The increase from $15,000 to $25,000 in the jurisdictional limits of General District Court is intended to provide more opportunity for the public to have simple, quick, and inexpensive trials, and should accomplish that goal.


[1] See Va. Code §16.1-77 (“Civil jurisdiction of general district courts”) and §8.01-195.4 for current law; for new changes to law effective 7/1/11, see http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?111+ful+CHAP0014+pdf.
[2] For more information about the different levels of courts in Virginia (General District Court, Circuit Court, Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court), as well as other types of state courts (Juvenile and Domestic Relations), see the official website for Virginia’s Judicial System at http://www.courts.state.va.us/courts/gd/home.html .
[3] “The General District Court hears all criminal cases involving misdemeanor under state law and offenses that are violations of ordinances, laws, and by-laws of the county or city where it is located.  A misdemeanor is any charge which carries a penalty of up to one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500, or both. ? The general district court decides civil cases in which the amount in question does not exceed $15,000. Civil cases vary from suits for damages sustained in automobile accidents to suits by creditors to receive payment on past due debts. In Virginia, claims for less than $4,500 can be initiated only in general district courts.” Quoted from the official website for Virginia’s Judicial System at http://www.courts.state.va.us/courts/gd/home.html .
[4] These sample calculations are made by using the Virginia Judicial Systems’ website estimated fee calculation system, using Henrico County as an example.  See “General District Court Civil Filing Fee Calculation” at http://webdev.courts.state.va.us/cgi-bin/DJIT/ef_djs_gdfees_calc.cgi and “Circuit Court Civil Filing Fee Calculation” at http://webdev.courts.state.va.us/cgi-bin/DJIT/ef_djs_ccfees_calc.cgi#ID_CALC_FRM.
[5] If you have a case where you need to get a lot of information from the opposing side during the lawsuit, then the General District Court’s simplified procedures and quicker trial date can be a disadvantage.  Usually that is not the situation in lower value cases.