District Court: A cheaper and faster option for civil litigations?

In 20 plus years as litigation focused attorney involved in thousands of lawsuits, I exclusively filed civil cases in Superior Court. Eventually, I became a primary pro tem Judge (a lawyer who is appointed to work as a temporary judge in substitution of the elected sitting judge) in District Court, and realized what I had been overlooking along with so many other lawyers. For the right case, District Court can be a better option, a faster and cheaper avenue to relief and recovery.

First, the basics. District Court is a court of limited jurisdiction. That means the court only has the power to hear types of matters it is specifically designated. District Court can hear civil lawsuits for up to $100,000 in damages including:

-Contract Disputes

-Personal Injury

-Injury to Property

-Actions for a Penalty

-Bond Conditioned on Payment of Money

-Surety Bonds

-Fraud Involving Personal Property

-Entrance of Judgments

-Writs of Attachment/Garnishment

-Money Judgment Enforcement RCW 3.66.020

District Court also has exclusive jurisdiction of small claims court, where actions are limited to $10,000, lawyers are not allowed, and the hearing process is an informal one day trial with each side having an opportunity to present their evidence and arguments directly to the court. RCW Chapter 12.40.

In Contrast, Superior Court can hear civil claims in excess of $100,000 with no upper monetary limit. They also have exclusive jurisdiction for claims relating to criminal felonies, estates/probates, family law, and juvenile charges. RCW Chapter 2.08. Classically, lawyers file their civil actions in Superior Court. The simple logic is each plaintiff wants the largest possible recovery in terms of damages, costs, and attorney fees and don’t want to limit themselves to any upper cap on recovery. What has resulted in is a tremendous backlog in cases.

Today, the wait from the filing of a lawsuit to the commencement of trial is approximately 3-5 years. It is not unheard of for cases to take 7 years or more to get to trial. Besides the lengthy wait for the chance of a recovery, there is also the possibility of extremely expensive attorney fees to accrue over time. However, for the right case, District Court can be a better option. With its low, if not vacant, civil trial calendar, it would be possible to get to a civil trial to the court or a jury of 6 people in about six months.

There are also provisions for attorney fees and costs to be awarded to the prevailing party in district court. Finally, if either side is unhappy with the result, there are provisions to appeal and have the matter heard in Superior Court. What makes a case right for district court? There is no simple answer since every case is different. However, a few general characteristics can be identified. First, the claim for damages must be $100,000 or less, not including costs, fees, penalties or interest.

Second, the discovery process should be on the smaller side. This means that the evidence, witnesses, and evidentiary materials should be more manageable than excessive. A streamlined or up- front controversy, if you will. A simple personal injury case or breach of contract case is a good example. Another could be a case where liability is not contested but the amount of damages is.

What does this additional choice mean for individuals with potential lawsuits? It means that in certain circumstances they should have a conversation with their lawyer about the possibility of district court filing. In no way does the author believe that the average civil case should no longer be filed in superior court. Instead, litigants simply need to consider the option to file in district court as another tool in the toolbox when deciding on their particular path to achieving resolution and recovery. After all, as William E. Gladstone said, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

About the Author: Jon Volyn is a Wenatchee attorney in private practice and a Chelan County District Court pro tem Judge. He is running for an open seat for Judge in Chelan County District Court in 2022. He can be reached at www.volynforjudge.com.

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