Following your case through the legal system in Florida
Let's say your Florida case was not settled and now falls among the 5% or so of personal injury cases that wind up going to trial. Or maybe your attorney has filed the lawsuit while settlement negotiations are still in process, in order to satisfy the statute of limitations.
Walking up into a courthouse can feel almost mythical. You're stepping into history. You can feel it, even if it's as heavily air-conditioned as the buildings are in Florida.
You might wonder what happens to your case once it reaches the doors of a courthouse.
It appears as if your file flits away from you for a few months and then pops back into being for a day or two, during which time your attorney and the defense will debate passionately in front of a tired-looking judge.
The motions will be made, everyone will argue and you'll have literally no idea what's happening.
So what's really going on? Let's discuss.
The Florida court system
Florida has 67 county courts as its base layer, 20 circuit courts atop that, five district courts of appeal and then the Supreme Court for the entire state. The Office of the State Courts Administrators serves as the administrative arm of the Florida Supreme Court and was formed in 1972.
- County courts: The Florida state constitution established that there must be one county court in each of Florida's 67 counties. This is where smaller disputes are resolved, such as traffic claims, misdemeanors and monetary issues of a smaller nature ($15,000 or less).
- Circuit courts: These courts have general trial jurisdiction and also hear appeals from those courts. Some of these courts are also made up of multiple counties.
- District courts of appeal: These are located in Tallahassee, Miami, Lakeland, West Palm Beach and Daytona Beach. Decisions of these courts usually represent the final review of cases, but they can reach the Supreme Court of Florida if that court chooses to look at the case.
- These courts provide review of decisions from the lower courts. They correct errors and ensure that decisions are consistent with both statutes and the state and federal constitutions.
- The District Courts of Appeal did not exist until 1957, and until that time all appeals were heard by the Florida Supreme Court. However, their docket was becoming badly congested and they needed to revise their system.
- Florida Supreme Court: This is one of the oldest appellate courts in the United States and has helped shape national law.
- Most cases are not heard by the Supreme Court.
- However, the Supreme Court MUST review the following types of cases:
- “Final orders imposing death sentences;
- District court decisions declaring a State statute or provision of the Florida state constitution invalid;
- Bond validations; or
- Certain orders of the Public Service Commission on utility rates and services.
- The Supreme Court also has discretionary jurisdiction over several types of cases, including those that are certified as having great public importance or involving a certified judgment of the trial courts, one that directly conflicts with a decision of another court, or a certified question from the federal courts.
So where does my personal injury case go?
It depends on how much your case is worth.
If your medical bills are already clocking in at more than $15,000, then you're going to skip the county courts and go straight to the circuit courts. You will file in the county where the accident took place. The reason for that is because personal injury law is based on state law, and as a result, state courts take precedence.
Once it's in the circuit court, your case will be given a docket number. This means your case has been filed and is in the system.
How Long Will My Injury Claim Take?
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To get to this point, your attorney will have served a Complaint on the defendant, which described your injuries in detail and demanded compensation. The defendant must have refused to settle out of court, which led you to this point. When the other side refuses to settle, you have to take them to trial if you want to get anything.
After this, you will proceed to Discovery. This is when both sides ask questions of the other in an attempt to figure out exactly what happened during the accident. You might also make motions in court, asking the judge to make rulings on various requests.
Discovery might include depositions (a long, intensive questioning period that is transcribed word-for-word by a court reporter so you can refer to it later during the trial) or an independent medical examination by a doctor who is paid for by the insurance company. This IME is used to try to impeach you (as in, “You can't possibly be that injured! Look, my doctor showed that your range of motion is fine!”).
If you can't reach a settlement, the judge might request that you try arbitration, mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution. A mediator serves as a go-between during difficult arguments; an arbitrator listens to both sides and then makes the decision himself.
Going to trial in Florida – how it works
If those don't work, you will proceed to a trial in Florida's circuit courts. Evidence will be presented in the courtroom, and you will likely be called to testify on your own behalf. The defendant's attorney will also ask questions of you, and witnesses will be presented to offer their versions of events.
Both attorneys will provide closing arguments, and the judge will need to explain the relevant personal injury law to the jury so that they can decide in your favor or the defendant's favor. Then, you just have to wait and see what the jurors decide.
If you need help or just want to talk with someone who knows the law, consider sitting down with an Enjuris listed Florida law firm.