In the contemporary legal climate for Maryland car and truck accident cases, we, at Clark and Steinhorn, LLC, often advise our clients on which court options best serve their needs. Some might think that the best court is the one that features the largest compensatory upside but other important factors must be weighed as well.
The goal of all personal injury lawyers is to maximize the verdict potential for their clients and this is certainly the most important consideration. However, many other factors come into play in making a decision about where to bring a lawsuit. These other factors include the amount of time between filing and trial, the cost of bringing a case in a particular court and the perceived verdict potential in different courts and counties.
For some clients, time is everything. A victim of a serious car crash often is behind in their bills and may be receiving collection calls and notices. It is hard to appreciate how stressful this can be and a delay of some months can be catastrophic. This timing consideration focuses attention on whether to bring a case in District Court where a verdict can't exceed $30,000.00 and no jury is involved, or Circuit Court, where verdicts are not limited to $30,000.00 and juries can be the factfinders and decision makers.
District Court trial dates are much more immediate. As an example, a recently filed Prince George's County District Court case featured less than two months between filing and court date. A similar Circuit Court case in Prince George's County would like require 8 to 12 months from filing to trial. Thus, the election of District Court substantially expedites any case.
District Court also features vastly lower costs due to some unique evidentiary features and the absence of deposition costs. Those evidentiary rules are associated with the ability of parties to a lawsuit being able to introduce into evidence medical records and bills without the need for highly expensive medical experts.
In a typical Circuit Court lawsuit, an injured party must bring to court, in person or by videotape, a medical expert to indicate that the medical expenses which underpin the case are fair, reasonable and causally connected to the crash. This prospective expert also can testify regarding the nature of the injuries sustained and whether they are of a temporary or permanent nature. The cost of doing this varies wildly, but at a minimum is at least $2,000.00. Thus, a District Court lawsuit in which the existing evidentiary rules are used properly can save a party some thousands of dollars in trial costs.
Deposition costs of parties and witnesses can be anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars depending upon the complexity of the case and the number of witnesses.
Circuit Court and Federal District Court cases typically include depositions whereas District Court cases do not provide for depositions at all.
The final, highly complicated, consideration is "perceived verdict potential". This cryptic phrase reflects an evaluation by lawyer and client of what court and jurisdiction seems most likely to elicit a verdict which fully and fairly compensates the injured victim.
Obviously, despite the advantages of lower costs and shorter waiting periods, the District Court's damages limitation makes it a bad choice for a case worth substantially more than $30,000.00. Therefore, a hypothetical case worth more than that amount should be filed in a court without the $30,000.00 limitation. So, we know from earlier parts of this article that would include Circuit Courts and the U.S. District Courts. Neither, system has a damage limitation like the $30,000.00 one.
However, litigants in Maryland should be aware of limitations inherent in the laws of the State of Maryland for so-called "non-economic damages". Without discoursing on this at length, pain and suffering damages in Maryland do have some limitations imposed by state law. When one reads about a muliti-million dollar Maryland personal injury or malpractice verdict, one is often not aware that the trial judge is obliged to reduce the verdict to ensure that "non-economic damages" do not exceed the "Cap" on such damages.
With this in mind, how does one decide whether to proceed in Federal District Court or state Circuit Court? The answer to this question sometimes is quite fact specific. In U.S, District Court cases several things mst be present. First, the amount in controversy must exceed $75,000.00. This is to say that you and your attorney must have a good faith belief that the damages that would be awarded by a judge or jury would be more than $75,000.00
This issue is not strictly speaking an objective or quantitative test. One can have a case with minimal medical expenses or income losses that still can be expected to produce a verdict far larger than $75,000.00 but it is important to be realistic or the Court may take a dim view of your case. There are many cases worth more than $30,000.00 and less than $75,000.00 and such cases belong in the Maryland Circuit Courts.
The second threshhold federal court consideration involves the parties to the lawsuit. While there are some statutory exceptions that will not be touched on here, the basic rule is access to Federal Court requires "diversity of citizenship". What the heck does that mean? It means the plaintiff must be from a different state from the defendants.
So if two Marylanders crash into one another and one brings a lawsuit it will not be in Federal Court. It will be brought in Maryland District or Circuit Court.
So there are a large body of cases that are too big for Maryland District Court and yet either lack diversity of citizenship or an expected verdict in excess of $75,000.00 or more and they belong in the primary trial court in Maryland, the Circuit Court.
That yields the question, which Circuit Court? There are a variety of exceptions to the general rule in personal injury and accident cases, but that general rule is bring the case in the county where the crash or negligence happened or where the defendant resides or carries on its business.
That seems easy but there is no question that lawyers and insurance companies regard some counties as being better and worse places to try cases. Rural less wealthy counties have been perceived as reluctant to award as much compensation to injured victims a opposed to larger wealthier counties. Thus, a crash in Baltimore City, where the culprit is a driver from Talbot County, Maryland, may yield the opportunity to bring such a case in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City or Talbot County, and will almost always be filed in Baltimore City.
An analysis of where to bring a case can be highly complex and requires the input of an experienced trial lawyer in order to optimize the decision.
A final heretofore undiscussed choice involves instances where one has the ability to bring a case in either Federal Court or a particular county Circuit Court. This usually turns on the verdicts that are routinely returned in the particular county Circuit Court. Again, using Talbot County as an example (To be clear I love Talbot County and its people) many veteran trial lawyers would bring a case in Federal court in preference to Talbot County Circuit Court, as the experience is that Federal Court verdicts are routinely larger.
The final area to be considered is that some cases can be brought in more than one state or Federal District Court. A similar analysis is necessary to determine whether one is better off bringing a case in, for example, Maryland or the District of Columbia.
That however is a topic for another day.