Thursday, June 8, 2017

Litigating Your Florida Personal Injury Case and the Judge’s Role

Did you know that almost 97% of all civil cases litigated in the United States never go to trial? Whether the cases settle or are dismissed by the judge, it is rare that an attorney will stand before both a judge and jury to try your case. Accordingly, what is the role of a judge in a Florida personal injury case if most matters are settled between the parties?

Like most states, Florida courts are divided into the following levels, listed from highest to lowest:

  • One Supreme Court; 
  • Five District Courts of Appeals; 
  • Twenty Circuit Courts; 
  • Sixty-seven County Courts, and 
  • Drug and Juvenile Courts, which are special judicial divisions. 

The County and Circuit courts are known as “trial courts,” meaning that they are where litigation is initially filed and litigated to conclusion. The District Court of Appeals and Supreme Court are appellate courts, where the losing party can file an appeal from the decision of the trial court. The first appeal is filed in the district court of appeals, and the losing party on appeal may petition the Florida Supreme Court for review. Personal injury litigation in Florida is generally filed in the Florida county court for the district in which the injury occurred or where the defendant lives. So if the injury occurred in Hillsborough County, the personal injury action would be filed in the 13th circuit.

Personal Injury Threshold in Florida

If you were injured in a car accident, because Florida is a “no-fault” state, you may be prohibited from filing litigation if your injuries do not meet Florida’s personal injury “threshold.” Under Florida’s personal injury liability law, you cannot be sued for another’s personal injuries, even if you caused the car accident, unless those injuries are above a certain medical threshold. Such “thresholds” are generally only applicable in no-fault states such as Florida, where drivers are required to carry $10,000 in personal injury coverage to pay for medical expenses that arise out of car accidents.

Because the circuit courts in Florida are inundated with personal injury claims from car accidents, the no-fault law is designed to reduce litigation by “guaranteeing” you some form of compensation regardless of who is at fault for the accident. As a result, if you wish to recover damages beyond mere economic damages, e.g., medical bills, lost wages, and transportation expenses, your injury has to meet “threshold.”

There are four categories of injuries that meet the “threshold” standard:

  • Significant and permanent loss of an important bodily function;
  • Permanent injury within a reasonable degree of medical probability;
  • Significant and permanent scarring or disfigurement, and 
  • Death.
Although you can file litigation without first proving that your injuries meet the threshold, the defendant in a personal injury case may file a motion early on in the litigation asking the judge to dismiss your case because your injuries do not meet this standard. After submitting medical evidence, the judge will have to determine whether the threshold is met and the litigation can go forward.

Litigating a Personal Injury Claim

When you seek the assistance of an attorney after suffering from personal injuries, your attorney will generally file a claim for personal injuries with the defendant’s insurance company, if there is one. The insurance company may investigate the matter, and your attorney will submit medical evidence on your behalf depicting your injuries. Depending on the limits of the insurance policy and the nature of your injuries, your attorney may be able to settle your case without the need to file a case in Florida’s court system.

However, if the defendant did not have an insurance policy, and your injuries are so severe that the insurance limits will not serve to compensate you, or the company refuses to settle, your attorney may have to file litigation on your behalf. This starts with filing a complaint, which literally complains to the court about your injuries. The defendant will then respond to the complaint, and you will enter the “discovery” phase of litigation. This is the longest stage of the process, as the parties will exchange and review evidentiary information. At this point, the parties may begin to file different “motions,” or arguments to be reviewed and decided by the judge on different issues. Such motions can include asking the judge to dismiss the case because it is not valid or asking the judge to make a decision on the evidence because it is so clear that the defendant is liable there is no need to take the case to a jury.

Judge v. Jury

Generally, if your case goes to trial, the judge acts as the decider of law, so if the question presented to the court is one of how Florida law should be interpreted or applied, it is decided by the judge. The jury, however, acts as the trier of fact, meaning that if the question is whether the defendant rear-ended you or whether you suffered certain injuries, the jury decides who is correct and the amount of damages that should be awarded to you. The United States Constitution guarantees you the right to a jury trial for civil matters, however, you are permitted to waive this right and elect to have the judge act as a jury would.

Post-Trial and Appeal Process

After the jury makes its decision, the judge may have the authority to step in and override the jury if its decision is clearly against the evidence presented. However, the judge may also determine that an award amount is either too high or too low and ask the parties to agree to accept a reduction or an increase in amount. If either one or more of the parties disagree with the decision of the judge or jury, they may be permitted to appeal that decision. The appellate court may uphold, overturn, or remand the issue on appeal, and you may even have to have another trial.

Contact a Clearwater Personal Injury Attorney Today

The Dolman Law Group can help guide you through the Florida litigation process to ensure you get the compensation you deserve for your personal injuries. Their attorneys are your premier personal injury lawyers in the greater Tampa Bay area, and they are here to fight for you. Contact them today at (727) 451-6900 for a free, no-risk consultation about your car accident.