Do I File a Lawsuit in a State or a Federal Court?

A Personal Injury and Accident Attorney Explains How a Court Can Assume Jurisdiction in Personal Injury Lawsuits

It is common knowledge that many of the products we use every day are manufactured at a facility distant to where the product was purchased and used. In many cases this location is in another state or even in another country such as China. In today’s post, an accident lawyer will discuss how lawsuits involving different jurisdictions can influence which type of court (a state or a federal court) will ultimately hear a lawsuit.

Depending on the circumstances that lead to a lawsuit, and the prevailing civil law, either party may request that a different court hear that lawsuit rather than the court where the lawsuit was originally filed. This requires that a party file a petition for removal to another jurisdiction. In many cases this request will involve asking a federal court to assume jurisdiction over the lawsuit. However, a change of venue petition may ask that a case be heard by a different court within a state, particularly in “high profile” cases where media reports may have prejudiced the potential jury pool.

Federal courts have been, and still are, reluctant to involve themselves in local matters. They will, however, assume jurisdiction in certain well-established circumstances such as original federal jurisdiction or diversity of citizenship.

  • Original federal jurisdiction

Historically, federal courts have acted primarily as courts of appeal. This is because the Constitution, and other laws that have been enacted by Congress, expressly limit the authority of a federal to act as a court of original jurisdiction (the court that first hears a case). Consequently, only in certain well-defined circumstances will a federal court exercise jurisdiction a civil matter such as a lawsuit. These exceptional circumstances include matters related to treaties that have been ratified by Congress, matters arising from matters of constitutional law, dealings of diplomacy involving a foreign government, matters arising in maritime law, or if the dispute involves matters related to interstate commerce.

In practice, a federal court will usually assume jurisdiction in class action or mass tort lawsuits where there are plaintiffs in many states or if the case alleges violations of federal law or regulations, even if no criminal act is at issue.

  • Diversity of citizenship

Another reason that either party may ask that a case be removed to federal jurisdiction is diversity of citizenship. Diversity of citizenship simply means that one party has their residence or their primary place of business in a location that is outside the jurisdiction of the court where the lawsuit was filed.

The issue of federal jurisdiction in diversity of citizenship cases arose in the latter half of the 19th century when railroads became the dominant form of transportation. At first, a railroad facing a lawsuit could demand that the lawsuit be tried in the state court closest to the railroad’s headquarters. This meant that a plaintiff in one state would have to travel to another state, hire a local personal injury or railroad accident lawyer, and remain available until the case was tried. This made it impracticable for most plaintiffs to pursue a lawsuit against a railroad.

Eventually, the courts held that a business could be sued in any location where it routinely conducted business operations. However, since such cases involved interstate commerce, the lawsuit would have to be heard in a federal court having jurisdiction over the area where the lawsuit was filed. Thus, diversity of citizenship of the parties involved can result in a case being filed in a federal court.

Removing a Personal Injury Lawsuit to a Federal Court

To have a lawsuit removed from a state court to a federal court, the party requesting removal must first file a petition with the federal court stating why it feels the lawsuit should be heard at the federal level. The other party will, of course, be given the opportunity to present arguments stating why the case should remain under local jurisdiction. After hearing the positions of both parties, the court will either 1) deny the petition or 2) issue an order of removal that transfers the case to the federal court.

In practice, the selection of the court to hear a lawsuit is quite often a matter of tactics than legal doctrine. As an example, it is known that a local jury will be reluctant to make a substantial award against a company that makes a strong contribution to the local economy. Given the same facts, a federal jury will likely award a greater percentage of the original damages sought in the lawsuit. There is, however, a “double-edged sword” to be considered with federal juries: although federal juries can be more “generous” than state juries, federal juries tend to be more sympathetic to the defendants in a civil lawsuit rather than to the plaintiff.

In summary, although many lawsuits are decided in state courts there are several situations that can lead to the case being “removed” from a state court to a federal court. In these situations, an accident lawyer will have the training and experience to either fight an attempt to move the case to the federal level or to accept such a move as being in the best interests of his client.