BASIC UNDERSTANDING OF JURISDICTION AND VENUE FOR CIVIL ACTIONS IN SOUTH CAROLINA
For those who have been wronged, whether by a corporation or individual, the first thing to understand before considering a civil lawsuit is Jurisdiction and Venue. In other words, what options exist for where a particular suit can be brought. Law schools spend years teaching the nuances of jurisdiction and venue, and this article is only meant to provide the non-lawyer some basics to consider with bringing a suit. If you hire an attorney, you can ask a few questions, and you will know more about your options to bring a case without a lawyer.
First, Jurisdiction is the right of the court to decide a case (whether a bench trial by judge, or jury trial). Under the American Federal System, each state is an individual sovereignty with its own judicial powers separate from other states and the Federal Government. Most cases are brought under state law, and therefore I will focus on the jurisdiction of courts in South Carolina and the rules of venue (basically, which county I case can be heard). Understand that some cases fall under the jurisdiction of Federal Courts for reasons of Federal law or diversity of parties.
Jurisdiction is based on the nature of the case and can also require other requirements dealing with the parties. The court must have subject matter jurisdiction. With a civil case dealing with tort law or property, or a contract dispute between parties the Court of Common Pleas for the county would have jurisdiction. The family court would have jurisdiction over a case dealing with a domestic law issue (divorce, custody, child support, etc.). The Probate Court has jurisdiction over issues dealing with estates, guardianships, conservatorships, and other such matters.
For cases involving civil matters (not family or probate) with $7500 or less of damages, a Magistrate Court holds jurisdiction. This is important to consider, as Magistrate Court allows for a jury trial, but is much quicker (no discovery, and trial in only a fraction of the time as with the Court of Common Pleas). It is much less expensive, and typically parties can handle these cases without attorneys.
The venue is basically which county a suit can be brought. Very simply, a suit can either be brought in the Defendant's county of residence or where the incident bringing the lawsuit occurred. For example, if you are rear-ended and want to bring suit against the other driver, you have the choice of the county of the rear-end collision or the county of residence for the person who hit you (if two different counties). If your damages are $7500 or less and you wish to bring a suit in Magistrate Court, you can only file in the Defendant's county of residence. Since there are multiple Magistrate Courts in each county, you may have to file in the Magistrate Court closest to the home of the Defendant.
When deciding which court to file when multiple options exist, it's important to consider which court is most advantageous in your specific situation. Some venues are known to have higher jury verdicts for those bringing suit. Some are known to be much better to defend lawsuits due to lower jury verdicts. In some cases, the demographics of the venue are more advantageous.
Attorneys spend a great deal of time deciding which venue and court to bring a case, and attorneys will fight hard over the issue of venue. So should you. Attorneys know that if the case is to be heard in a particular venue the insurance company on the other side will be either more of less willing to settle the case at a higher amount (due to the history of jury verdicts in the venue). Attorneys and clients must consider if Magistrate Court is most advantageous, even if they could have a verdict beyond $7500 in the Court of Common Pleas. In looking at expenses, the fact Magistrate Court does not involve discovery (note: each deposition during discovery is a few hundred dollars each) cuts expenses down substantially. Again, cases are brought for trial in a fraction of the time it takes in the higher courts.
With this basic information, you won't be an expert but you will have a better ability to either decide which court to bring a case (jurisdiction and venue). You will also have a better idea of what to ask your attorney about venue, and together make the right decision on this critical piece of the suit.