Understanding the Courts: Filing a Lawsuit

If you have been injured in an auto accident in North Carolina and you are unable to reach a settlement with the responsible insurance company, you may wish to proceed with filing a lawsuit. However, filing a lawsuit requires a certain level of understanding of the court system. One of the first questions that must be decided is in which court you should file your lawsuit.

In North Carolina, the jurisdiction of the courts to hear specific types of cases is conferred by state statutes. The determination as to which court will hear your case depends largely on the amount in controversy in the case. The term “amount in controversy” is legalese for legal damages. Based on this determination, you could file your lawsuit in a small claims court, district court or superior court.

Small Claims Court

Many pro se plaintiffs, or plaintiffs representing themselves without an attorney, prefer to seek relief in small claims court. A magistrate presides over the court and hears cases in which the amount in controversy is less than $10,000.00.

The magistrate is similar to a judge in terms of having the power to render decisions in cases, but they are not formally elected the same way as a district court or superior court judge. Instead, magistrates are appointed by the senior resident superior court judge from among persons nominated by the clerk of superior court.

The chief district court judge determines the magistrate’s work schedule, which will include both criminal and civil matters. A magistrate must have a four-year degree from an institution of higher learning or a two-year degree plus four years of relevant work experience.

Although small claims court typically handles matters involving less serious injuries, pro se plaintiffs have a greater chance of success at this level because small claims court is not structured like a trial court where evidence must be introduced and presented in a particular manner, nor is there a jury rendering a decision.

The Rules of Evidence do apply in small claims court, but they are applied more loosely, especially if you are a pro se plaintiff. The magistrate is charged with rendering a final judgment, but the magistrate will be more likely to forgive a pro se plaintiff’s failures to follow procedural and evidentiary rules than a district court or superior court judge would be.

Another reason to consider seeking relief at small claims court is that you have an automatic right of appeal. This is very different than at the district court and superior court levels, where a case ends with a final judgment, either by a judge or jury, and the plaintiff’s only remaining chance for recourse is to file an appeal, which may or may not be heard. Essentially, if you do not approve of the magistrate’s decision, you or the opposing party automatically has the option to appeal the decision and have your case tried before a judge and jury in district court.

District Court

If the amount in controversy is greater than $10,000.00 but less than $25,000.00, you should file your lawsuit with the district court. The court can only hear matters where there is less than $25,000.00 in damages, but injuries are still fairly substantial in many cases brought to district court.

It is important to understand that the district court is a trial court, and, as such, all Rules of Civil Procedure and Rules of Evidence will apply. If you have concerns about whether certain evidence in your possession is admissible or if you are having doubts about your ability to address a courtroom and question witnesses, you should consider consulting with an attorney about the risks of representing yourself in district court.

It is important to note that there are no “de novo” appeals (do-overs) at this trial level. If a mistake is made or if you decide to appeal the court’s decision, you are appealing the case to the court of appeals and not to the superior court.

Superior Court

Cases involving more than $25,000.00 in damages must be heard in superior court. These are usually cases where serious injuries were sustained, and the assistance of an attorney is typically recommended.

While pro se plaintiffs are allowed to file cases in superior court, it is strongly recommended that you speak to a trial attorney before you do so. Superior court is extremely unforgiving, and the judges do not take kindly to inexperience, regardless of whether you are an attorney or not. As with district court, this is a trial court that has a rigid set of procedural rules and formalities that must be followed in order to present your case correctly and effectively.

It is worth noting that superior court is considered to be the most serious trial court. It is not uncommon for superior court judges to hear multi-million dollar claims every day. Moreover, many superior court judges will choose to dismiss a case for failure to follow the Rules of Civil Procedure. As such, it is important to consider your experience and expertise before you file a claim at any trial level.

Court of Appeals and Supreme Court of North Carolina

The North Carolina Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of North Carolina do not have “original jurisdiction” to hear a case, meaning these courts do not have the power to hear a case for the first time. They are strictly appellate courts, which are higher courts that only have the power to review lower courts’ decisions. The amount in controversy does not factor into the appellate courts’ decision as to whether or not a case should be reviewed. These courts’ primary function is to review potential errors of the lower courts and make decisions regarding legal issues where no legal precedent exists.


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