Occasionally I am asked, which court in Clark County, Washington, should my personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage case (all of which are “tort claims”) be filed in? It's a good question, and there are a lot of factors to consider. This blog won't endeavor to address the tactics of making such a choice. Likewise, it will not cover venue or jurisdiction rules, nor will it address federal court options. Rather, this blog merely presents basic information about the various Clark County state courts that offer different filing options for persons who may be seeking a monetary recovery with regard to their tort claim.
First, for small matters, where it doesn't make economic sense to involve attorneys, there is the option of Small Claims Court. The operation of Small Claims Court is a function of Clark County District Court. Clark County, Washington's small claims division has a jurisdictional limit of $10,000 applicable where “natural persons” are filing their case; however, corporations and other non-person entities are subject to a limit of $5,000. Small Claims Court is relatively inexpensive, quick, and informal. The filing fee is $50. Pleadings are simple; prepared by the unrepresented parties. No attorneys are allowed to represent the litigants or to argue at the small claims court hearing absent special permission from the judge; so parties must represent themselves and argue their own cases. One's day in court gets set pretty quickly, and when the hearing occurs, all parties and witnesses are sworn in at once and allowed to testify in a stand-up session that typically lasts less than a half hour. A Clark County District Court judge or court commissioner (or at times, a “pro tem” judge) decides the case, and issues a written judgment on the spot.
Second, let's consider Clark County District Court more generally, which can be great for moderate sized-tort claims. As of the date of this blog Clark County District Court has 6 full time judges and 2 court commissioners. It has jurisdictional limits of $100,000 and handles cases where monetary (as contrasted with equitable) relief is being sought. Some plaintiff personal injury attorneys prefer District Court as it places limits on the types and extent of discovery allowed. Others prefer the fact that only 6 person juries are used. Historically, cases could be brought to trial quicker in District Court than in Superior Court (although that may not still be true since Superior Court Civil Rule LCR 40 was revised a few years ago to include something of a “fast-track” system). The “new case” filing fee in Clark County District Court, for tort and contract claims, is $83. E-filing is required of attorneys and government agencies in Clark County District Court, but pro se parties must file paper documents.
Third, if you have a case where you may want to seek a monetary judgment greater than $100,000, you will want to file upstairs (of course, a case doesn't have to be worth more than that to file in Superior Court – one always has the option to file in Superior Court or District Court even if they may be seeking less than $100,000). Clark County Superior Court has 10 judicial departments, each with its own full-time judge, and utilizes 3 court commissioners. There are no jurisdictional limits on the monetary amount that may be sought in a Superior Court action, and Superior Court handles cases where equitable as well as monetary relief is being sought. Unless a case is transferred into MAR (which is addressed in the next paragraph below), broad discovery is allowed in Clark County Superior Court - there are, for example, typically no restrictions on the number of depositions that may be taken or on the number of interrogatories that may be propounded. There is now in place something of a fast-track case scheduling system, which is spelled out in LCR 40 – basically, requiring that Superior Court cases be tried within 16 months of the date of filing, absent special circumstances. That time limit is spelled out more specifically in the local rule in this fashion – at filing, a case scheduling conference must be set up to occur on a date which is no less than 4 and no more than 6 months from the date on which the case was filed; then, at the case scheduling conference, the case must be set for trial no later than 10 months after the date of the case scheduling conference. Any party can request either a 12 person or a 6 person jury in Clark County Superior Court, each having its own set fee that must be paid by the party making the jury demand. The “new case” filing fee for a tort claim in Clark County Superior Court is $240. An E-filing system is in place and functions efficiently in Clark County Superior Court.
Fourth, with respect to cases with lower potential monetary judgment upside, even though they might exceed the $100,000 District Court threshold by a few dollars, many plaintiff personal injury attorneys prefer to file in Clark County Superior Court because of the Superior Court MAR option. If a case has been filed in Clark County Superior Court and the party seeking monetary relief is willing to limit how much will be sought, then the case may at the case scheduling conference be transferred into MAR (an acronym for “Mandatory Arbitration Rules”). This option is a Superior Court option only. Cases may only be placed in MAR though if the plaintiff is willing to accept that the arbitrator won't be able to award more than $100,000. The Clark County Superior Court mandatory arbitration fee is $220. The process involves a mini-trial (or “arbitration”) held before a single neutral arbitrator, who decides the case and enters an arbitration award. The rules of evidence are relaxed, so there can be expert testimony presented by report or declaration, instead of live (which is a huge factor influencing the cost-effectiveness of litigation). The MAR arbitrator is selected from a list of 7 neutral attorneys, where each party is allowed to strike 3 and circle 3 of the 7 names on the list. The process is administered by the Clark County Superior Court Administrator's Office. The result of the process typically produces a fact finder that is reasonably “neutral”. The arbitrator's award may be appealed by either side if they aren't happy with it. To do so, the unsatisfied party must serve a notice indicating they want a new trial of the case within 20 days of the entry of the arbitrator's award. If that occurs, the case will go forward again as if the arbitration award had not been entered, and get re-tried before a judge, or to a jury if a jury demand was timely made. The twist that can make the MAR process interesting and cost-effective for the non-appealing party is the fact that there is a prevailing party attorney fee rule that applies when a party who has appealed the arbitration award fails to improve their position at trial. Normally, one's actual attorney fees and expert witness costs aren't recoverable in personal injury and wrongful death cases, but they can be assessed against a party who filed for a new trial after the MAR award was entered, if doing so didn't improve the outcome for the appealing party.
Finally, a brief word about appeals. Appeals from Small Claims and District Court judgments are reviewed on appeal by a judge of the Clark County Superior Court. Cases appealed from Clark County Superior Court judgments, on the other hand, are reviewable by the Washington Court of Appeals, Division II, which sits in Tacoma. From there, if certain criteria are met, they may be reviewed at a final level by the Washington State Supreme Court, in Olympia.
The above is a basic primer of the options for filing tort claims in state court in Clark County, Washington. It merely touches the surface, so to speak, of a topic that could, however, be addressed in much more detail. It is always wise – if you have a property damage dispute, personal injury claim, or wrongful death claim that you believe will need to be litigated – to call an attorney, discuss your specific situation and concerns with them thoroughly, and seek their legal advice before proceeding.