Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 18, 2020

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How do the court systems work in Virginia and D.C.? That’s the question we asked Doug Stevens, an attorney who has practiced law for 30 years and whose firm focuses on personal injury and car accident matters in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, to explain. Here’s what he told us:

  • District of Columbia. In the District of Columbia, I can sue you for $5,000 in Small Claims Court. The laws of evidence are relaxed, which means I’m definitely going to get your medical bills into evidence before the judge and I’m almost certainly going to get your medical reports in when dealing with a Pro Se action. The defense lawyers will usually keep the reports out, but there’s a chance the rules of evidence are relaxed in the small claims division.

    If you sue for more than $5,000, you’re in Superior Court, where the filing fees are more and the other side can beg for a jury. In D.C, the defense can demand a jury, regardless of the amount sued for – which is a big pain in the neck.

  • Virginia. In Virginia, you can sue for $15,000 in District Court, but we have what’s called a trial de novo provision, which means no matter what happened in District Court, you get to start all over again in Circuit Court. In a lot of ways, this means that the District Court system in Virginia is really a mirage.

    For example, last year we got a $15,000 verdict for a little girl, the other side appealed it and that verdict just didn’t exist. It became extremely difficult thereafter to convince the parents that they should settle for $10,000, which in fact was more like the fair market value of the case. I had to explain to them that the $15,000 verdict from a judge was really a mirage under Virginia’s trial de novo rules.

    Virginia also has what’s called the plaintiff’s parachute – which is a non-suit statute. That means the plaintiff can simply announce to the court that he is taking a voluntary non-suit anytime before a verdict is returned. At that point, everything stops. The plaintiff’s lawyer can go home and the plaintiff has six months to reinstate a cause of action, even if the statute of limitations has already run. In a substantial case, I want to have that non-suit “in my pocket” during the trial in case our crucial witness doesn’t show up.