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Making a Federal Case Out of an Auto Accident

Jurisdiction is often a tricky issue to understand in personal injury cases. Most personal injury lawsuits, such as those arising from motor vehicle accidents, are heard in state courts. But a case may be tried in federal court if there is “complete diversity” among the parties. This means, for example, if you live in Georgia and get into an accident there, you can sue the other driver in federal court if he lives in Florida. And if you are suing multiple parties—say the other driver and her employer—then neither of those parties can be residents of Georgia.

Lyons v. O’Quinn

Here is a recent case addressing such a scenario. In October 2009, a woman was driving her vehicle the wrong way on Interstate 20. She hit a tractor trailer and died from her injuries. The tractor trailer driver also suffered serious injuries.

The driver subsequently sued the executor of the woman’s estate and her employer for $20 million in federal court. He argued federal court was the appropriate forum because at the time of the accident, the deceased woman was a citizen of Russia and her employer was a corporation based in Kentucky, thus satisfying the “complete diversity” requirement. The executor objected, arguing the deceased was actually a resident of Georgia, and consequently so was her estate. This would defeat the diversity requirement.

The executor presented the district court with substantial evidence the deceased was, in fact, a Georgia resident, including her death certificate, her authorization to work in the U.S., and the probate documents establishing a Georgia estate. The plaintiff still maintained the deceased was a Russian citizen, but said even if she were not, the court could dismiss the executor and allow him to proceed solely against the employer, who was indisputably a Kentucky resident. The judge rejected this and dismissed the complaint for lack of diversity.

In an April 14 order, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals partially reversed the district court’s decision. The appeals court agreed the deceased was a Georgia resident. Although she was born in Russia, the estate “presented undisputed proof that Ms. St. Laurent was a citizen of the United States and a resident of Georgia on the date of the accident.” And as a matter of law, an estate must be a resident of the same state as the deceased.

Having said that, the 11th Circuit also said the district court abused its discretion in not allowing the plaintiff to dismiss the estate as a defendant, thereby preserving its diversity jurisdiction against the employer. The plaintiff sued the employer on the theory the deceased was “acting within the scope of her employment.” Under Georgia law, an employer and employee can be held “jointly and severally liable” in such circumstances.

Here, the district court said this meant the estate could not be dismissed as a defendant because there was no way to determine the employer’s liability without also determining the employee’s. This made the estate an “indispensable” party to the litigation. The 11th Circuit said that was not the case. To the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court has said the exact opposite: “[W]here joint tortfeasors may be jointly and severally liable, neither tortfeasor is an indispensable party.” In other words, if multiple people may be liable for the same accident, it is not necessary to name them all in the same lawsuit.