A guide to the Tennessee court system
So you’ve been injured in an accident in Tennessee and now you want to sue the at-fault party for damages. Before you can begin to make your case, first you need to figure out where to file your lawsuit.
Although the courthouse closest to you might be the most convenient place, that doesn’t mean the laws of the state allow you to file your lawsuit there.
Let’s take a look at the different court systems in the Volunteer State, focusing on where your civil claim can be filed.
State trial courts
Your personal injury lawsuit will usually be filed in a state trial court. In Tennessee, there are 3 types of state trial courts: circuit courts, chancery courts, and probate courts.
Circuit courts are courts of general jurisdiction, which means they can hear and decide all issues that are brought before them, including:
- Contract disputes
- Family law issues
- Criminal cases
The state of Tennessee is divided into 31 judicial districts. Each judicial district has 1 circuit court.
Some judicial districts cover only 1 county (such as the 2nd judicial district, which covers Sullivan County). Other judicial districts cover several counties (such as the 26th judicial district, which covers Chester, Henderson, and Madison counties).
Judges in circuit courts are elected to 8-year terms. Each circuit court has a set of local practice rules that lawyers must follow in addition to the state rules of civil procedure. These rules cover topics like:
- Formal appearance requirements
- Filing and service requirements
- Trial calendars
- Motion procedures
- Court approval of settlements
- Pre-trial procedures
- Orders and judgments
Chancery courts have concurrent jurisdiction with circuit courts, meaning that most cases that can be filed in circuit court can be filed in chancery court. Just like circuit courts, every judicial district has a chancery court.
Probate courts are also considered state trial courts, but probate courts only hear matters related to the probate of wills and the administration of estates.
General sessions courts
General sessions courts handle small claims matters in Tennessee. Specifically, general sessions courts handle lawsuits involving disputes of $25,000 or less.
Each county has a general sessions court. In most cases, the juvenile court is located within the general sessions court and the general sessions court judges also preside over juvenile matters.
General sessions courts are more informal than circuit courts, though you must still follow certain local rules. Due to the informalities, cases heard in general sessions courts are generally resolved more quickly than cases heard in circuit courts. You’re allowed to be represented by an attorney in a general sessions court, but it’s not required and it’s common to be unrepresented.
There are 3 federal trial courts in Tennessee (called “U.S. District Courts”):
- United States District Court of the Eastern District of Tennessee
- United States District Court of the Middle District of Tennessee
- United States District Court of the Western District
District courts can only hear cases that involve a violation of the U.S. Constitution (or some federal law) or cases where there is complete diversity. Complete diversity exists when:
- The plaintiff lives in a different state than every defendant, and
- The case in controversy (the total amount of damages claimed) is more than $75,000.
Keep in mind that just because your case can be filed in federal court doesn’t mean it has to be filed there. You can choose to file in state court, though the opposing party might try to “remove” your case to federal court.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals hears appeals from state trial courts. In other words, if you lose your personal injury case in a state trial court and believe the wrong law was applied or the law was applied incorrectly, you can ask the Tennessee Court of Appeals to review the trial court’s decision.
The appellate court won’t retry your case or hear new evidence. The court will simply review the decisions made in the trial court (along with the evidence that was admitted in the trial court) to make sure the proceedings were fair and the proper law was applied correctly.
The Tennessee Court of Appeals has 12 judges who hear cases in Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville on a rotating basis.
What about the Tennessee Supreme Court?
The Tennessee Supreme Court is the state’s highest court. The 5 justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court review civil cases appealed from lower courts, such as the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
The Tennessee Supreme Court is under no obligation to review a civil case, and requests must be made by filing a petition (called a “writ of certiorari”).
Choosing a venue for your personal injury case
Once you’ve determined the appropriate court system for your lawsuit, you’ll need to decide the proper venue.
The term “venue” refers to the geographic location of the court. In most personal injury lawsuits, you can file your lawsuit:
- In the county where the defendant lives (in the case of a business, the defendant “lives” where it was incorporated and where it does substantial business), or
- In the county where the accident occurred.
Let’s look at an example:
You were involved in a car accident with a drunk driver in Davidson County. You live in Blount County and the drunk driver lives in Cheatham County. You were injured in the accident and are claiming damages in the amount of $50,000.
In this example, you could either file your lawsuit in the Davidson County Circuit Court (where the accident occurred) or the Cheatham County Circuit Court (where the defendant lives). You cannot file your lawsuit in Blount County (where you live), in a general sessions court (your damages are too high) or a federal court (you don’t have complete diversity and no federal laws were violated).
It may seem like the plaintiff should be able to file a lawsuit where they live, but unfortunately they can’t unless the accident occurred there or the defendant also lives there. This is because venue laws are in place to prevent defendants from getting dragged across the country by plaintiffs.
Ready to file your lawsuit? Contact an experienced personal injury attorney to make sure you’re headed to the right courthouse.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.