Trials in the magistrates' courts may be either with or without a jury. Either party to a civil suit is constitutionally entitled to a trial by jury upon demand, but upon agreement of both parties, the right to trial by jury may be waived.
Upon waiver of the right to trial by jury by both parties, the magistrate himself becomes the trier of fact, as well as the one who determines, based on the evidence, whether the plaintiff has proven his case over the defendant by a preponderance of the evidence. The standard of "proof by a preponderance of the evidence" is not as stringent a standard as that of "reasonable doubt" in criminal trials, and means generally that the evidence of one side or the other has "greater weight" or creates a "stronger impression."
The magistrate should base his decision upon all the evidence admitted at trial, taken as a whole, rather than on the side offering the greater number of witnesses or upon any evidence not admitted at trial. If the evidence offered by the plaintiff does not convince the magistrate by a preponderance, or greater weight, the magistrate must give a verdict for the defendant.
2. Defenses and Counterclaims
After the offering of the plaintiff's evidence, any defenses alleged by the defendant must be examined by the magistrate. If the evidence of the defendant offered in support of his defense is more convincing than the plaintiff's evidence contesting that defense, the verdict must be given for the defendant. But a verdict for the plaintiff must be given where the plaintiff's evidence contesting the defense was more convincing than the defendant's evidence supporting his defense.
Any counterclaims that are tried along with the plaintiff's claims must be considered and decided by the same standard of "proof by a preponderance" as was applied to the plaintiff's evidence. Considering all evidence as to the counterclaim offered by both parties, the magistrate must award a verdict to the side offering the more convincing evidence. Any defenses to a counterclaim must be considered as well.
The possibility of the existence of claims and counterclaims can mean that a plaintiff may win his claim and beat a counterclaim, or win his claim while losing a counterclaim, or lose a claim and win against a counterclaim. In some instances, a verdict in favor of a counterclaim may result in a set-off.
The magistrate may only award those compensatory damages (amount to replace loss or make good actual damage) which are proven by a preponderance of the evidence.
Punitive or exemplary damages (amount in excess of that for compensation) may be awarded only where there is convincing evidence of willfulness or malice, but are not appropriate in cases of simple negligence or mistake.
The total sum of compensatory and punitive damages may not exceed the $7,500.00 jurisdictional limit. Note, however, that fees and costs which are ultimately taxed against the losing party are not considered to be part of the amount claimed, and therefore have no bearing on the determination of whether or not the amount claimed is within the jurisdictional limits of § 22-3-10. (see Rule 17 (a), SCRMC. Therefore, in most civil cases magistrates may render a judgment of up to $7,500.00 plus fees and costs permitted by law. The determining factor as to whether a specific claim exceeds the jurisdictional amount prescribed for magistrate's court is the amount of the damages being sought minus any attorneys' fees or costs. See discussion under Section G, PROCEDURE AFTER THE VERDICT, concerning the award of attorney's fees.