On Tuesday, the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee moved a bill that would shunt more civil lawsuits to county courts.
The bill (SB 328) will move to the full Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
At present, there is a $15,000 limit on damages in civil suits, also called “small claims,” filed on the county level. This bill, as amended in committee, would raise that to $30,000 on Jan. 1, 2020, and to $50,000 by Jan. 1, 2022.
The current cap hasn’t been changed since 1992.
Bill sponsor Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg who chairs the subcommittee, noted the bill “gradually raises” those amounts, in accordance with inflation.
“This is a very important issue,” Brandes said. “The county courts are really designed to be the people’s courts.”
“More of these cases get thrown into circuit courts,” he continued.
The Florida Justice Reform Institute noted that the Supreme Court wanted a lower threshold initially, and found the increase to $50,000 to be of most concern.
“They’ve recommended an increase from 15 to 25,” said its President, William Large.
Large expects bigger case loads for circuit judges because of the legislation, with circuit courts bearing the burden of appeals from the county courts.
He argued that appeals should be heard by district courts of appeal, which handle cases coming out of circuit courts.
“I want everything to go to the DCA,” he said.
But Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said he supports the bill because “it’s time to do something different.”
“I believe the Legislature will seek the support of the Florida Supreme Court,” Rouson added.
“We have an overburdened circuit court at this point,” added Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican.
Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, likewise spoke in support.
In his closing statement, Brandes allowed that there may be further tweaks regarding the appellate process, and that he’s willing to refine the language with Supreme Court staff.
And, he said, “this is an ongoing conversation with our partners in the House.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.