Determining When to File a Personal Injury Lawsuit in Magistrate Court

  After a car wreck or “slip and fall” involving personal injury in Orangeburg, the usual place lawsuits are filed in South Carolina is in the state “circuit” court of the Court of Common Pleas (Civil Court).  This is the state court most are familiar at the respective County Courthouse. The Judges are former experienced lawyers who are elected by the South Carolina Legislature, and the court puts no limitations on the amount of damages sought (note: the one exception is if the damages sought exceed $75,000.00 and the parties are from different states. In that event a party can “remove” the case to Federal Court. That is unusual). Because damages are not limited, many parties will first consider Circuit Court, but it’s important to know an important alternative: Magistrate Court. Let me explain why you may want to bring your personal injury case in Magistrate Court.

        First, it’s important to understand the primary drawback to Magistrate Court and that is the $7500.00 cap on damages for Civil cases.  The parties must plead that they are seeking no more than $7500.00, or the case can be dismissed. The exception to this rule is with the exceptional cases which involve punitive damages which can exceed the jurisdictional amount.  The corresponding exception is that parties can seek attorney fees in some cases. The reality is that a party should usually never assume they will be able to receive punitive damages or attorney fees beyond the $7500.00.

        The important thing to understand is that the $7500 limit is for each individual case.  If a family were to be involved in a vehicle accident, cases could be brought for each member of the family injured, with each case up to $7500, then combine the cases for trial. With that, a “family” could obtain a verdict way beyond $7500. For example, if both parents and four children were all evaluated and treated in the Emergency room, the total amount sought could be $45,000.00. 

        The other potential drawback to magistrate court can also act as a reason to pursue the case in magistrate court:  Lack of discovery. In the Court of Common Pleas, parties exchange discovery requests and answers and conduct depositions, and this makes up the bulk of litigation.  It allows parties to learn more about each other, and find evidence that acts as a “smoking gun”. The Discovery process is cumbersome and time intensive, and the main reason litigation in this court takes around a year or more to go to trial.  During this time, parties can spend substantial sums of money on expert witness and depositions, among other discovery-related expenses. This can substantially lower the net amount the plaintiff finally puts in his pocket after the resolution of the case.

         Unlike the Court of Common Pleas, in Magistrate Court parties do not engage in discovery. Therefore, the time between filing suit and going to trial is usually only about a fourth or a third of the amount of time compared with Circuit Court. Additionally, beyond trial exhibit type expenses parties will spend very little to get to trial.  They may not have the opportunity to find smoking gun evidence, but can still present all evidence in trial. The net amount from a magistrate court resolution can exceed a circuit substantially when considering litigation savings. 

          Obviously, cases involving substantial damages in the mid to high 5 figures and above should probably be filed in the Court of Common Pleas. For lesser personal injury damage cases, consider Magistrate Court.