Since 1992, the Florida circuit courts have had original jurisdiction over civil lawsuits seeking more than $15,000 in damages. But on May 24, 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis signed CS/CS/HB 337, which raises the county courts’ maximum jurisdictional amount from $15,000 to $30,000, effective January 1, 2020. CS/CS/HB 337 further provides that the county courts’ maximum jurisdictional amount will rise an additional $20,000, to $50,000 in three years’ time, on January 1, 2023.
CS/CS/HB 337 has received remarkably little attention. With less than two weeks until the bill takes effect, no one (including members of the Florida Legislature) appears to have made any serious effort to study how the change in jurisdictional amount is likely to affect the operation of the county and circuit courts. Clearly the county courts will handle more cases while the circuit courts will handle less. What is not clear is how the shift in the number of cases before the respective courts will affect the litigants.
Small business disputes alone will probably place a significant additional burden on the county courts, particularly in the Sarasota area, which is home to numerous small and growing businesses. (Earlier this year, Go.Verizon ranked Sarasota second on its list of “Best Small Cities to Start a Small Business.”)
Disputes arising out of automobile accidents are also likely to impact the Sarasota and other county courts. In 2018, according to the Sheriff’s Office, Sarasota County alone had over 12,000 automobile crashes. Many of those crashes result in litigation, much of which has been filed in the county courts. But as of January 1, 2020, a large number of car crash cases that would have been filed in circuit court will go to county court instead.
The presumptive decrease in pending cases bodes well for circuit court litigants; among other things, litigants may find more available hearing and trial dates. For county court litigants, however, the outlook is considerably more grim. The county courts may be overwhelmed by an influx of new cases, resulting in crowded courtrooms, a backlog of cases and lengthy wait times for hearings and trials. Accordingly, anyone contemplating or planning to file a civil lawsuit in which the amount of money damages at issue is between $15,000 and $30,000 should seriously consider filing suit on or before December 31, 2019.