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Why Do Federal Courts Have Jurisdiction Over Some Georgia Personal Injury Cases?

Most personal injury cases are filed in state court. That is because most torts, including personal injury, are governed by state law. There are, however, times when a personal injury case is filed in state and then removed (transferred) to a federal court. This is typically done by out-of-state defendants, usually corporations, who believe the federal court gives them an advantage.

Federal courts are generally thought to be friendlier towards defendants than state courts. One reason for this is that, although state law still governs the underlying personal injury lawsuit, federal courts follow different rules regarding the admission of evidence than state courts. The federal rules are uniform throughout the country, while the rules in a Georgia state court are specific to the state.

That said, a defendant cannot remove a case from state to federal court unless certain legal requirements are met. First and foremost, there must be complete “diversity” among the parties. This just means the plaintiff and defendant must be residents of different states. For example, if a Georgia plaintiff files a personal injury lawsuit against a business incorporated in Florida, there is complete diversity.

Of course, diversity is only the first step. Even if the parties reside in different states, the “matter in controversy” must exceed $75,000 before a federal court can assume jurisdiction over the case. Federal courts are not a place to pursue small claims actions.

Riner v. Retained Subsidiary One, LLC

But, what if the plaintiff does not specify how much he or she seeks to recover? Federal jurisdiction may still exist. Here is a recent example from a pending case before a federal judge in Valdosta. In this case, the plaintiff was shopping at a local supermarket when “a water bottle display fell from a shelf on top of a freezer and onto him.” The plaintiff then sued the corporations that owned the supermarket and supervised the display, both of which are non-Georgia residents. The defendants then removed the case from state to federal court.

The plaintiff asked the federal court to remand (return) the case to state court because it had not been established that the “amount in controversy” exceeded the mandatory $75,000 threshold. Indeed, the plaintiff’s lawsuit specified no specific damage amount. His complaint only broadly discussed “serious injuries” he had suffered and related medical costs.

In an order dated Feb. 3 of this year, U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson denied the plaintiff’s motion. Judge Lawson said even though the plaintiff had yet to affix a dollar-amount to his claim, it could be inferred from all available evidence the amount in controversy was more than $75,000. For one thing, the plaintiff previously presented the defendants with copies of his then-current medical bills, which reflected more than $52,000 in expenses. The plaintiff’s medical records further establish he is continuing to receive treatment “and that additional treatment and/or surgery is not only possible but probable.” So, it is more than likely his medical costs, which his lawsuit seeks to recover from the defendants, will be more than $75,000. The case will, therefore, remain in federal court.