Can a Non-citizen File a Personal Injury Lawsuit in a U.S. Court?
In a recent post, we discussed the potential liability of businesses for injuries their customers and employees might receive in a “mass shooting” incident or during some other act of premeditated (“planned”) public violence. We have since been asked to discuss an issue that we did not raise in our original post: “Given that many victims of the recent mass shooting incident in El Paso were Mexican nationals, rather than U.S. citizens, can a non-citizen file a personal injury lawsuit in a U.S. Court?”
In the United States, the rights of a non-citizen are essentially the same as those of a citizen. These civil rights are protected by the U.S. Constitution, each state’s constitution, and by a number of federal and state laws. Specifically, Article III of the U.S. Constitution grants federal jurisdiction to cases where the parties are residents of different states or where one party is a U.S. citizen and the other party is a citizen of another country. Over the years, the right of a non-citizen to file a lawsuit has been expanded to include lawsuits filed in state courts. However, in state court lawsuits where diversity of citizenship is an issue, either party may ask that the case be removed (“transferred”) to a federal court for trial.
Having established that a non-citizen has the right to file a lawsuit, we can now turn to the issues that will come into play in cases where the plaintiff is not a U.S. citizen, but the defendant is either an individual or a U.S.-based corporation (since corporations are treated as individuals under U.S. law). The most important issues in non-citizen lawsuits are those of jurisdiction and sufficient cause of action.
Jurisdiction (from Latin for “speak the law”) refers to a court’s legal authority to hear a particular type of case. As examples, a domestic relations court hears cases involving divorce and child custody and a criminal court hears cases involving alleged violations of criminal law. In our judicial system, civil lawsuits such as personal injury or wrongful death are tried in a state’s superior court. Jurisdiction is also decided on the basis of where the alleged incident that was responsible for an injury occurred.
In general, any personal injury lawsuit must be filed with a court having civil (“non-criminal) authority over the location where the injury occurred. In most states, this is a superior court of the county where the injury happened. As an example, in the El Paso mass shooting incident, a lawsuit would be filed with a superior court of El Paso County, Texas.
As noted earlier in this post, in cases of a non-citizen versus U.S. citizen lawsuits, either party has the right to ask that such a lawsuit be heard by a federal court rather than a state court. Such requests are usually made because one party believes that it will stand a better chance of proving its position at the “federal level” rather than arguing before state court. Although there are cases where a lawsuit filed with a federal court is moved to a state court, most such actions move in a “state to federal” direction.
Sufficient cause of action
In any lawsuit the plaintiff (the person filing the lawsuit) must be able to prove to a court that the defendant’s negligence was the direct cause of an injury. In order to prove negligence, the plaintiff must be able to show that:
- The defendant had a duty (a legal or moral “responsibility”) to protect the injured party from harm or the possibility of harm.
- The defendant breached (failed) that duty.
- The plaintiff suffered a real injury and that injury was a direct consequence of the defendant’s breach of duty to the plaintiff. (There must have been an injury. The possibility that an injury could have occurred is not grounds for a lawsuit!)
If the court (judge and jury) feel that the evidence presented proves each of the above requirements, the court may order a defendant to pay damages to the plaintiff.
Regarding the issues of jurisdiction and sufficient cause of action, cause of action may be the most difficult for non-citizens to understand because of differences in the legal philosophies of the United States and their native country. As an example, it is much more difficult to prove a personal injury lawsuit in Mexico than in the United States because Mexican legal principles generally restrict damages to cases where a plaintiff’s actions did not, in any way, contribute to their injury. By the same token, a Canadian citizen may be unaware that the legal definitions of “negligence” and “liability” are much less restrictive in the U.S. than in Canada and may not fully understand their rights under our legal system.
As we have seen, a citizen of another country has the right to file a lawsuit in the United States so long as that lawsuit meets the requirements placed on any other lawsuit. Since many visitors to the United States are unaware that they may be able to sue in a U.S. court if they are accidentally injured while on American soil, we recommend that foreign nationals who have sustained accidental injuries while visiting our country to contact a personal injury law firm with experience in managing lawsuits in both the state and federal courts. One such firm is The Doan Law Firm, a national law practice with offices located throughout the country.
When you contact our firm (en Español) to arrange a review of the facts in your personal injury case, we will never charge you for your case review and a review of the legal options that may be available to you, regardless of your citizenship! If you decide to file a lawsuit after speaking with our personal injury lawyer, and that you would like to have us represent you in court, we are willing to assume full responsibility for all aspects of preparing your case for trial in exchange for an agreed-upon percentage of the final settlement that we will win for you.