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Limit hike for GDC would ease backlogs

The jurisdictional limit of Virginia’s general district courts would go from $25,000 to $50,000 under a bill moving through the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1108 would double the maximum civil jurisdictional limit of general district courts. The present concurrent limit of $25,000 has been in place since 2011.

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, the chief patron of SB 1108, said the bill is meant to address issues magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, including clogged dockets. Stanley made his remarks during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 18.

To prevent additional backlogs, the bill limits its scope to three types of civil cases: personal injury, personal property claims and wrongful death.  Issues related to debt, breach of contract or injury done to real property would remain subject to the original $25,000 limit.

“Right now because of the pandemic and because of the suspension of jury trials, there are very limited circuits that are engaging in jury trials,” Stanley said on Jan. 18. “What this seeks to do is alleviate some of the pressure that has built in the circuit court.”

The pressures on court systems across the commonwealth stem from emergency orders from the beginning of the  pandemic. Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons wrote in June that the general district courts continued approximately 413,000 cases between March 16 and May 1. Circuit courts continued 135,000 cases during that span. Courts across Virginia have been affected by the statewide judicial emergency brought on by the pandemic. Some locales are not conducting jury trials presently, creating a backlog in the circuit courts.

While the pandemic inspired Stanley’s proposal, Stanley insists that the measures would remain in place even after the pandemic ends.

Sen. Bill Stanley

Sen. Bill Stanley

“This was not intended just to be a fix for the pandemic,” Stanley said to the judiciary committee. “What we are able to do is spread these court cases around our judicial system in a manner that will take off some of the pressure that’s been unduly caused by this pandemic.”

The bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 13-1 vote. Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, was the only vote in opposition.

The bill carries an amendment proposed during the committee meeting by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. The amendment would no longer allow insurance companies to appeal to the circuit court without having to post appeal bond.

If passed, the amendment would remove a portion of Virginia Code § 16.1-107, appeal bond shall be required of a defendant with indemnity coverage through a policy of liability insurance sufficient to satisfy the judgment if the defendant’s insurer provides a written irrevocable confirmation of coverage in the amount of the judgment.”

The Virginia Trial Lawyers Association voiced support for the bill during the public comment period on Jan. 18. Mark Dix, who spoke on behalf of the VTLA, noted that the backlog issue existed before being heightened by the pandemic.

“Many of our members have indicated that they can’t get jury trial dates until 2022,” Dix said on Jan. 18. “With this modest increase in the concurrent jurisdiction of the general district court, it will alleviate the backlog in the circuit court and hopefully get cases moving again.”

Two groups representing insurance companies spoke against the bill. Representatives for the American Casualty Insurance Association and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies voiced opposition to the bill during the public comment period, advocating instead for a sunset provision lasting through the pandemic. Both also spoke in opposition of Sen. Surovell’s amendment.

“The amendment would really just be an added cost, both to insurance companies and ultimately to Virginia’s policyholders,” NAMIC representative Andrew Kirkner said. Kirkner argued the existing exemption for insurance companies is because insurance companies are “easy to find” and are not going to go insolvent.

One issue brought up during the judiciary committee meeting was staffing. Lemons wrote in June that courts were understaffed for a normal docket, with new hires frozen indefinitely due to budget amendments necessitated by the pandemic.

“Now the General District Courts and Domestic Relations District Courts will need to handle cases that have been continued as well as new cases,” Lemons wrote. “For the courts that were already understaffed, it will be a serious challenge to reduce this backlog while doing their best to keep current cases from adding to the delay.”

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, voiced concerns about staffing during the committee meeting. Obenshain, who began by stating his support for the bill, offered “a word of caution” just prior to the committee’s vote.

“I hope that if we pass this and as we continue to look at this, we’re going to be ready to pony up what’s going to be required in order to keep our civil justice system rolling, whether it’s additional circuit court judges, general district court judges, clerks and administrative staff,” Obenshain said.

After its approval by the judiciary committee, the bill was referred to the Finance and Appropriations Committee for later review. The earliest Finance and Appropriations could review the bill is Jan. 26.