Most personal injury cases in Maryland go through the Maryland District Courts.
A judge will hear your case if it goes to trial in what is known as a bench trial. There are no jury trials in the District Courts. After a complaint is filed, the court will issue a summons, which must be served (usually by private process or certified mail) on the defendants. When the summons is issued, the court will set a preliminary trial date, which assumes that the defendants are served by a specific deadline. The Plaintiff (the injured party who files the complaint) must serve the summons and complaint, along with any other important documents like written discovery (called interrogatories).
The defendants’ response is usually in the form of a notice of intention to defend, sometimes called an answer. The initial trial date will usually move because of difficulties serving the defendant, or because of scheduling conflicts with the lawyers’ schedules. In most cases, trial ends up being finished by about 4 to 9 months after filing.
Three Tiers of Civil Cases
There are three tiers of District Court civil cases:
Small Claims Lawsuits
Cases filed for $5,000 or less are small claims cases. The damages recoverable include medical expenses, property damage (for example, the repair cost of a vehicle) and pain and suffering (non-economic) damages. Small claims cases are like People’s Court. Some people will file these lawsuits on their own, and this is possible because many formal rules of evidence, like hearsay don’t apply. The proceedings are more informal. However, you can still have a lawyer represent you in these types of cases.
Middle Level: $5,000.01 to $15,000.00
The next tier permits recovery of between $5,000.01 to $15,000.00. The standard procedural and evidence rules do apply. Those rules can be difficult for unrepresented litigants (called pro se). For most, it’s best to have a lawyer in these cases.
High Level: $15,000.01 to $30,000.00
Plaintiffs in the highest level of the District Court can recover a maximum of $30,000.00. Importantly, the defendant may choose to move the case to the Circuit Court and file a request for a jury trial. Plaintiffs must be careful when filing for over $15,000.00–the case must be able to justify the added expenses of a Circuit Court, which often include discovery and trial video depositions, expert witness fees. Also, Circuit Court cases can take much longer, sometimes a year or more from the time they are filed.
Proving Your Damages and Medical Injury
The best advantage of the District Courts is that medical evidence can be presented through medical records and bills. In most Circuit Court cases, that evidence must be provided through the testimony of doctors. The rules for this are MD. CTS. & JUD. PROC. §§ 10-104 and 10-105. The records simply need to describe the plaintiff’s medical treatment, and state that the injuries were causally related to the automobile accident.
Because of procedures like this, District Court cases move quickly (usually finished in an hour or so), and the case expenses are usually minor.
Discovery is limited in the District Courts. There are no interrogatories permitted in small claims cases, and only 15 interrogatories allowed in the two higher tiers. Depositions are not permitted without court permission, and requests for production of documents are limited to a few very specific types of documents, which can be requested by interrogatories.
Just like juries, judges come with their own education, experience, attitudes, and proclivities. They are the ones who listen to the case, decide liability (who was at fault), and determine damages. They will consider the reasonableness of medical bills, property damages, and assign a value to non-economic damages. Your job as a plaintiff is to make a good first impression–dress nicely, and be respectful to the judge and the defense attorney. It may not win your case, but it won’t hurt.