In Georgia, the injured person has the ability to file or commence a lawsuit in Superior, State or Magistrate Court. This blog post will deal specifically with the nature and nuances of the Magistrate Court or what has been popularly referred to as small claims court and personal injury lawsuits. Magistrate Court is a court of limited jurisdiction in Georgia, meaning that the small claims court can only entertain or hear certain court cases. In Georgia, the amount in controversy in the Magistrate Court is capped at $15,000 or lower. There have been movements in the past to increase this jurisdictional cap as a way to aid backlogged court cases, but–to date–nothing has been passed. For a brief overview of Magistrate Court in Georgia, please visit this link.
Filing Your Petition (Complaint)
Most of the clerks in the larger counties in Georgia have preprinted petitions that the petitioner can fill out and file with the Clerk of Magistrate Court along with their filing fee. Typically, the petitioner would allege that defendant breached a duty by violating a rule of the road of Georgia (statute) and consequently caused damages in the amount of $X bills and pain and suffering. Sometimes, if the property damage of your vehicle has not been resolved previously, you would add in the property damage claim at this juncture. However, be careful, because the jurisdictional limit of the court is only $15,000. If you think your injuries or your injuries and property damage are worth more than the $15,000 limits, then small claims court is not for you and you should speak to an experienced personal injury attorney for advice and consultation.
Service of the Petition Upon Defendant
Included in your filing fee is a fee to pay for the services of the local marshal or sheriff who will personally serve the petition upon defendant. Typically, one would file the lawsuit against the defendant in the county of the defendant’s personal residence. If the marshal or sheriff is unable to find the defendant at the address you provided (typically found on the accident report) , then it is incumbent upon you to either hire a special process server to locate the defendant or determine his or her whereabouts yourself, and provide it to the court. If you have questions regarding where to file or if you have a corporate defendant, then contact a reputable car collision attorney.
Day or Night
The larger counties in Georgia generally offer the option of having your case heard in the morning or at night. Depending on your schedule, you can choose the more convenient time option. From my professional perspective, I have no preference to morning or evening hearings.
The Magistrate Court is not set up for extensive discovery. In other words, unlike State and Superior Court where the plaintiff is allowed to utilize the discovery procedures under O.C.G.A. 9-11-26 through O.C.G.A. 9-11-37, the plaintiff (petitioner) in smalls claims court generally cannot serve interrogatories (written questions) or document requests to the defendant unless defendant consents to engage in discovery (unlikely) or by order of the Court (rare). Generally speaking, the insurance company attorney will likely not want to engage in formal discovery for and with you. However, you may find that the insurance defense attorney may ask that you to produce copies of all your medical bills, medical records and photographs of any vehicle property damage to him/her prior to the hearing.
Rules of Evidence
Simply put, Magistrate Court judges are used to petitioners who are non-lawyers representing themselves in court and will be somewhat flexible regarding the admission of documents and testimony. At the very least, you should bring the original and two copies of all your medical bills, medical records and photographs of your injuries and damage to your car to the hearing. You will provide one copy to the court, one copy to the defendant and keep the originals for yourself. You have the power to subpoena the investigating police officer to the hearing, which could prove helpful if there are issues with liability (or fault) amongst the motorists. As a practice pointer, the officer may want to be compensated by you for his/her time and you should provide the officer with adequate notice so the subpoena is not a last minute surprise.
As the petitioner, you get to go first. Tell the judge how the collision occurred, your injuries, your medical bills and how the collision has affected you physically and mentally. In other words, you’ll need to explain to the judge that not only are you requesting money to pay your bills, but you’re also requesting an amount to compensate you for your past, present and future physical and mental pain and suffering.
The Right of Automatic Appeal
So you filed suit, served the defendant, attended the hearing, testified and received a money judgment from the Court. Now what? Well here is the kicker. If the insurance company (or defendant) feels in its infinite wisdom that the award or judgment was too high based upon the facts, then the company attorney (or defendant) has an automatic right to appeal the award and bring you back to court. Only this time, the defendant can choose to have the case heard in either State or Superior Court. This means the appeal starts the case all over again, so you’ll have to prove your case once more. What’s more, this time you may face a judge again or you might have to state your case to a jury.
While the appeal process sounds daunting, just remember that an experienced personal injury attorney can provide the right counsel and expertise to help you most effectively navigate this step in the claims process. The Law Offices of Kevin C. Ford is currently accepting car accident and collision cases throughout Georgia. If you or a loved one has been injured on a bicycle as the result of the negligence of a motorist, then please contact an experienced auto injury attorney for a free consultation.