General Sessions or Circuit Court … Does it Matter?

October 11, 2018

Clients often ask “What’s the difference between General Sessions Court and Circuit Court? Are there advantages to filing a lawsuit in one over the other?

In Tennessee, the General Sessions Court is a court of limited jurisdiction which varies from county to county based on local statutes. In civil matters, General Sessions courts can try cases where the amount of alleged harm or damages not more than $25,000. General Sessions courts often handle criminal misdemeanors and some preliminary matters in more serious criminal cases.

Additionally, the General Sessions Court is not a court of record. This distinction allows for either party to appeal the result of a trial to the Circuit Court and request a trial de novo. A de novo trial is a do-over, a start from scratch. The nearly unrestricted ability to appeal a General Sessions Court judgment is one reason many individuals might chose to file a suit there.

Alternatively, the Circuit Court is the trial court of general jurisdiction in Tennessee. The Circuit Court has the authority to hear civil and criminal cases and appeals of decisions from City, Juvenile, Municipal and General Sessions courts. Criminal cases are tried in Circuit Court except in districts with separate Criminal Courts.

The de novo appeal from General Sessions Court is also a reason to consider Circuit Court for filing your suit. In Circuit court, all appeals must be on the record. This means that to appeal a judgment from the Circuit court, the party must allege some sort of procedural or substantive error that took place during the trial and that the alleged error was preserved in the trial record through the noting of an objection, an evidentiary ruling or some other judicial order or ruling. A restriction on the Circuit Court appellate process is that you cannot raise new arguments or theories in the appeal that were not argued at the trial. That is, you can only appeal and argue what was on the record in the Circuit Court.

The ability to appeal the outcome of a General Sessions trial can offer some peace of mind for litigants in that they may get another bite at the apple if things don’t go their way the first time around. But, starting over and conducting a full trial in Circuit Court is costly and time consuming.

It’s important to remember that local rules in each county dictate the actual procedures and jurisdictional limits of the courts in that county. Be sure to discuss with your attorney about which court might be most advantageous for your suit.

-Drew Zimmer