Virginia has two levels of trial courts: the circuit courts and the general district courts. Circuit courts are considered “courts of record”, while general district courts are considered “courts not of record.” Both levels of trial court have their own unique jurisdiction to hear certain types of cases.
The Recent Legislation
In a significant development, the Virginia General Assembly recently passed legislation to increase the jurisdictional limit of Virginia’s general district courts from $25,000.00 to $50,000.00 for personal injury and wrongful death claims.
This is a substantial change from prior law in Virginia, which had previously capped the damages maximum at $25,000.00, exclusive of interest, attorney’s fees, and court costs. Notably, this damage cap did not apply to unlawful detainer lawsuits (eviction lawsuits seeking judgments for delinquent rent).
This change has the potential to increase the number of personal injury and wrongful death suits filed by litigants, including executors/administrators, in general district court.
Previously, litigants with claims over $25,000.00 needed to either file in circuit court, or file a reduced claim (up to $25,000.00) in general district court (thereby, essentially giving up a part of their claim in order to file in the lower court).
The Differences Between Virginia’s General District Courts and Circuit Courts Generally
The two different courts have considerably different procedures and timelines. Circuit court litigation is typically much more costly to the parties both in time and resources. It can take years for a circuit court matter to be tried to verdict, whereas trials in general district courts are often concluded within 3-9 months of filing.
General district court cases involve trials to the Judge (a bench trial), whereas circuit courts have the ability to conduct jury trials.
Discovery is Limited in Virginia’s General District Courts
General district court litigation is typically much less costly compared to circuit court litigation because discovery is substantially more limited. Discovery is the process by which parties may find out information, request documents, and ask questions in the course of evaluating and preparing their cases for trial. Discovery can take the form of depositions (testimony given under oath), interrogatories (written questions to be answered by the parties under oath), the issuance of document subpoenas to third parties for copies of documents, requests for admission, and requests for production of documents between the parties. Discovery is quite often the most costly and time-consuming part of civil litigation.
Virginia’s general district courts permit only one form of discovery: the issuance of subpoenas duces tecum to the parties and/or third parties for documents. No depositions are permitted. No other written discovery is permitted.
This discovery limitation typically results in significantly less expense in general district court cases, and helps to expedite the matter for trial. This limitation does come with downsides, of course, as the amount of information discoverable can be seriously limited. This limitation can operate to hinder a party’s ability to discover potentially relevant evidence, analyze her claim, and prepare for trial.
The General District Court’s De Novo Appeal Feature
The other procedural hallmark of Virginia’s general district courts is that each litigant may appeal an adverse ruling of a general district court de novo to the circuit court. Doing so requires the filing of a notice of appeal within 10 days of the adverse ruling, plus the payment of the writ tax and applicable appeal bond within 30 days (unless the case is an unlawful detainer, which amounts must be paid within 10 days).
Assuming the appeal is noted and perfected, the matter is transferred to circuit court for a whole new trial (de novo), as if the prior matter had never been heard. In circuit court, the parties are permitted to engage in circuit court discovery (depositions, written discovery, etc.) which is not permitted in general district courts. Moreover, the parties are entitled to seek a trial by jury in circuit court, whereas all general district courts are bench trials (trials before a Judge).
Upon an appeal to circuit court, there is considerable variation between the courts in handling the scheduling of those trials.
In light of the de novo appeal feature, it is a real possibility for the parties who initially file in general district court to have to try the same case twice – once in general district court and once in circuit court. This can sometimes operate to the detriment of the parties in terms of costs.
Given the appeal bond requirement (with the appeal bond typically being the amount of any judgment entered against an appealing party), a non-appealing party, who previously secured a judgment in general district court, may have her judgment paid out of the appeal bond previously paid into court by the appealing party, if the non-appealing party wins again on appeal.
Potential Impact on Estate Personal Injury/Wrongful Death Claims
This legislative change could increase the number of personal injury claims brought by litigants, including executors/administrators, in general district courts in Virginia. This change may also permit those litigants to take their disputes to trial faster and more cost-effectively than they may otherwise be able to do so in circuit courts.
Given the potential advantage of faster trial dates and more limited discovery, some litigants in more modest matters may decide to file their claims in general district courts. However, doing so is not without potential drawbacks, such as the serious discovery limitations of general district courts and potentially having to try the case twice if it is appealed to circuit court.
The decision as to which court to pursue a lawsuit is a complicated one that involves the consideration of a wide variety of factors. It is a decision that should be made after consultation with competent counsel. If faced with such a dispute, it is best to speak with an experienced attorney.