A DISTRICT COURT PRIMER: TIPS FOR NEW LAWYERS PLANNING TO FILE LAWSUITS IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF MARYLAND
By Justin Katz and Mark Schofield
District Court litigation is an essential part of our civil justice system in Maryland. The techniques and skills developed by attorneys practicing in the District Court are many of the same skills needed to handle more complex Circuit Court cases. These “District Court skills,” are the backbone to building and developing a solid trial practice. This article will provide several tips for litigators who are new to trial practice and who are intending to file a lawsuit in the District Court of Maryland.
I. PRESUIT PREPARATION
A. Get Organized
Winning a District Court trial starts on the day you begin handling the case. As Plaintiff’s attorneys, we have the burden of proving our cases, so it is essential that we gather everything we need to do this prior to initiating a lawsuit. For example, when handling a motor vehicle accident case, it will be essential to gather your client’s medical records, bills, property damage photos, police reports, lost wage information, witness statements and anything else you can think of that may ultimately be useful as evidence. (Obtaining all documents prior to filing suit is especially important in District Court cases where the initial trial date can be set as soon as sixty (60) days after the lawsuit is filed. See Rule 3-102 (a) and 3-307. In addition, if you rely upon Maryland Courts and Judicial Proceedings Section 10-104, you should know that submissions under that section require that the Notice be filed and served no less than sixty (60) days before trial.) Early and thorough collection and organization of essential documents allows you to present a stronger case.
B. Confirm the Defendant’s Whereabouts before You File Suit.
Service issues are probably the most common reason for delays in getting your case to trial. Unnecessary continuances waste your and your client’s time. It takes a few minutes to confirm that the address you have for the Defendant is valid. You can verify addresses using inexpensive tracking programs, free Google searches, or through a private investigator.
If you are unable to confirm an address, or worse, if you do not have one at all, you are not necessarily out of luck. The rules provide for alternative means of service upon Defendants when other good faith efforts fail. (Md. Rule 3-121(b) provides for recourse where a Defendant is evading service. Md. Rule 3-121(c) permits alternative service under limited circumstances. Familiarize yourself with these rules if you cannot find the Defendant.) You should also generally familiarize yourself with the Maryland Rules controlling service and service of process. Maryland Rules 3-111 through 3-114 govern process. Service of process is governed by Md. Rules 3-121 through 3-126.
C. Serving Documents
After you file your Complaint with the Court, the clerk will issue a Summons which must be served on the Defendant along with a copy of your Complaint. In every case, you should serve Interrogatories on the Defendant with the Complaint. This is necessary because Rule 3-421(b) only gives the plaintiff ten days to serve Interrogatories after the defendant’s Notice of Intention to Defend is filed with the Court. Since discovery is severely limited in District Court, make sure the Interrogatories you propound on the Defendant are thorough, complete and exhaustive. Keep in mind that Md. Rule 3-421(a) (3) only permits you to ask fifteen Interrogatories.
If your client is claiming medical expenses, or wants to use medical records as evidence at trial, utilization of Courts Judicial Proceedings §10-104 is essential. (Section 10-104 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article allows any party to submit medical bills and records into evidence without the need for expert testimony.) If you are going to utilize the 10-104 statute, you must provide a Notice of your intent to introduce the medical documents at trial to the Defendant no less than 60 days prior to trial along with a copy of each document that you intend to submit through Section 10-104. The Notice itself must reference each specific document you intend to introduce, and should include the date of each treatment or bill. While you will be providing the Defendant a complete copy of each document referenced in the 10-104 Notice, remember that the statute requires that only the Notice itself be filed with the Court. (For more information, see Cts. and Jud. Pro. §10-104 and §10-105 Md.)
Maryland Courts and Judicial Proceedings §10-105 similarly allows District Court practitioners to introduce paid bills for goods and services other than medical bills into evidence without the need for the provider of the goods to come to Court and testify to its authenticity or to the fact that the bill is fair and reasonable. For example, in a motor vehicle case you could utilize this statute to introduce your client’s vehicle property damage bills into evidence without having to call a mechanic to testify that the estimate is fair and reasonable. Practitioners need to keep in mind that unlike 10-104, a requirement of 10-105 is that the bill being sought for admission into evidence must have been paid by the person claiming it. In most other respects, 10-105 works similarly to 10-104. Therefore, if you intend to use this statute, notice should be properly provided to the Defendant more than 60 days before trial. To be safe, we typically serve such notices and the documents themselves with the Summons and Complaint.
If you utilize a 10-104 or 10-105 package, it is a good rule of thumb to always number or bate stamp each page of the package. It makes referring to specific pages at trial much easier. Moreover, some District Court judges will refuse to hear your case without numbered medical records and bills. Again, serve these documents with the Summons and Complaint to avoid timeliness objections.
II. TRIAL PREPARATION
A. Basic Discovery Tips.
As discussed earlier, Interrogatories to the Defendant should be served with your Complaint and 10-104 or 10-105 materials if applicable. Maryland Rule 3-421 permits each party the opportunity to serve Interrogatories on the other party. This same rule requires that a party respond to interrogatories which have been served on them within fifteen days after service of the interrogatories, or within five days after the Notice of Intention to Defend is required, whichever is later. Using this rule to your advantage places you in a favored position during the discovery process. In every case you file, make sure you propound Interrogatories on the Defendant when you serve the Defendant. If the opposing party fails to respond in a timely fashion to your discovery requests, use Maryland Rule 3-421(h) to compel responses.
We also recommend that you install a system for responding to discovery that maximizes your efficiency. Most defense counsel in District Court cases send a stock set of the same fifteen Interrogatories. If you practice in the District Court system for any significant period of time, you will probably see the same Interrogatories being asked over and over again. Generate a set of “new client interrogatories,” which is basically a questionnaire that you can create for your client to fill out that addresses the most frequently asked questions. This will save you time down the road.
B. Get Stipulations From Opposing Counsel Before Trial.
Try to discuss procedural aspects of the case with the opposing counsel prior to the day of trial. Defense counsel often will stipulate to a liability determination, the date and time of accident or the admissibility of your 10-104 documents. Judges appreciate this and it saves time. You can confirm these stipulations in writing and eliminate any uncertainties down the road.
C. Subpoena Witnesses.
Ensure that your essential witnesses will appear at trial by using subpoenas. Do this well in advance of trial by familiarizing yourself with Maryland Rule 3-510. (Maryland Rule 3-510 specifically governs the use of subpoenas in District Court.) Never assume the opposing party or any witness, will appear for trial. If a witness is necessary to your case, serve a subpoena well in advance of trial.
D. Meet With Your Client Prior to Trial.
Do not wait until the morning of trial to find out that your client is the main impediment to a successful outcome. You need to meet with your client and flesh out any problems with their memory and eliminate any tendency that they may have to exaggerate. Make sure you discuss with your client the strengths and weaknesses of his/her case. Educate your client so their expectations are not unrealistic. You want to make sure these preparation sessions are done sufficiently in advance of the trial date so that any last minute issues can be addressed prior to trial. Also, while District Court trials are more informal proceedings than jury trials, prepare your client’s direct and cross examination as you would prepare a client for a jury trial. Obviously, make sure your client is aware of the date, time and location of the trial.
E. Prepare Exhibits For Trial.
Every trial requires exhibits. Identify what you will need to prove your case. Aside from the staples previously discussed, other tools are also available to you if you are creative. For example, you can use Google Maps to get satellite images of an accident scene. These can be very useful in helping the judge visualize your client’s version of the events and they do not cost anything. Make sure you know what it will take to have each exhibit accepted into evidence. See Maryland Rules 5-401 et. seq. for the rules on relevant evidence.
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Final Words: Minimizing the time and energy spent in the handling of a District Court case by increasing your organizational skills and avoiding well known pitfalls will not only improve your performance in these proceedings, but it will lower your stress level as well. A general familiarization with the Maryland Rules goes a long way toward increasing your competency and comfort level as a new litigator. So read up!
Justin Katz is an Associate at the law firm of Gordon Feinblatt and works for his father, Bob Katz. He represents clients in Maryland, Virginia and in the District of Columbia in the areas of motor torts, personal injury and premises liability. This article was originally written by Justin Katz and fellow litigator Mark Schofield for other lawyers in the Maryland Association for Justice and was published in the Maryland Trial Lawyers Magazine.