UPDATED: The $10,000 Question
I was reading in the local newspaper about a lawsuit recently filed. It was a slow news day, and this particular suit had an interesting twist on a regular car accident case, so somebody thought it might make a good story. The reporter was fairly accurate, especially when she couldn't get either side to talk, but one "fact" that she reported was wildly inaccurate, but she had no idea why. She reported that the amount of relief the injured person was seeking was $10,000. I know exactly where she got that information; she went to the courthouse and pulled the Complaint. Nothing wrong with that, its a public record. The facts were laid out nicely for her and she reported those correctly as facts, but at the end of the Complaint she got in trouble. She read in what is called the "prayer for relief" that the Plaintiff was seeking a judgment in excess of $10,000.
Now that attorney did not put in $10,000 because that is what he wanted, or what he thought the case was worth, or what he thought the other side would give him. Strangely enough, usually what you can ask for a trial, or what the jury can give you, has nothing to do with anything you ask for in the Complaint. In fact, some types of cases, negligence and punitive damages, do not allow the Plaintiff to put in an amount, only if it is more or less than $10,000. Even when it is not required, the instinct of an attorney is not to give away free information on what he thinks the value of his case is, especially as it may change as the lawsuit progresses. In addition, the Complaint is usually not even allowed to be read to a jury. The reason for the $10,000 figure is to determine which North Carolina court your civil suit goes.
North Carolina Courts start with Magistrate Court. After that, the main trial courts are the District Court and Superior Court. These are the courts where cases are actually tried with a jury or judge making a decision on the facts in the case. Beyond the trial courts are the appellate courts, the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court. Those courts only decide cases that come up on appeal for errors of law.
District Court and Superior Court, on the civil side (as opposed to criminal cases) split their cases based on the amount in controversy. Anyone claiming an amount for $10,000 or less is tried in the District Court, and anything over $10,000 is tried in the Superior Court. Unlike Magistrate Court, whose judges can't award anything over $5000, a jury or judge in District Court can award more than their "limit" of $10,000 if they find the facts and evidence support it, and the Superior Court can award less.
So the next time you read that somebody is asking for "more than $10,000," you'll know what you don't know–how much they really want or will get.
UPDATE: As of August 1, 2013, the jurisdictional amounts for small claims court will be at $10,000, District Court at $25,000, and Superior Court for anything greater than $25,000.
–Bradley A. Coxe is a practicing attorney in Wilmington, NC who
specializes in Personal Injury, Car Accidents, Medical Malpractice, Contract and Real
Estate disputes and all forms of Civil Litigation. Please contact him
at (910) 772-1678.