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Why do Personal Injury Defendants Transfer Cases to Federal Court?

Personal injury cases are generally a matter of state law. Many non-Georgia defendants will seek to transfer a personal injury claim to federal court. There are a number of reasons why they do this.

First, while a federal court must still decide the merits of a personal injury claim under the substantive law of the forum state, the trial itself is conducted under federal rules of evidence and procedure. This often benefits defense attorneys, who have more practical experience trying cases in federal court. Federal rules also make it easier for defendants to seek dismissal of a plaintiff’s complaint during the summary judgment stage, i.e. before the case gets to a jury.

Second, the jury pools in federal court are much broader than in state court. Let’s say you are in a car accident in Marietta. The negligent driver lives in Florida. If you file a personal injury claim in state court, the jury will be drawn from residents of Cobb County. But if the case is removed to federal court–the Northern District of Georgia–the jury pool suddenly expands to 46 counties. This can produce a final jury that is less sympathetic to a “local” plaintiff.

Third, state judges are elected by the voters of Georgia and are therefore accountable to them. Local plaintiffs’ attorneys also have a keen understanding of how state judges think and operate. Federal judges, in contrast, are appointed for life by the President of the United States and hear far fewer cases involving state-law personal injury claims. Once again, this tends to favor defendants and their non-local attorneys.

Stevens v. Publix Super Markets, Inc.

Of course, a defendant cannot simply demand removal without first satisfying several statutory requirements. There are two basic things a that defendant must show before a federal court will exercise jurisdiction over a state-law personal injury case:

  1. There must be “complete diversity” among the parties. This means that none of the plaintiffs reside in the same state as any of the defendants. For example, if you are a Georgia resident and you sue two defendants–one who lives in Georgia, and the other who lives in Florida–there is not complete diversity, since you reside in the same state as one of the defendants. The case therefore cannot be removed to federal court.
  2. The “amount in controversy” must be over $75,000. Let’s say you only sue a Florida resident and ask for $50,000 in damages. The defendant cannot remove the case despite the existence of complete diversity, since the amount in controversy does not exceed $75,000.

What if your lawsuit does not specify an exact dollar amount? In that scenario, a federal court must decide it is “facially apparent from the complaint” whether the amount involved exceeds $75,000. To illustrate, in a recent slip-and-fall accident case from Atlanta, the defendant sought removal to federal court. The plaintiff has asked for “an unspecified amount of damages for injuries as well as attorney’s fees and expenses,” according to court records.

The federal court looked to additional information provided by the plaintiff during pretrial discovery. This revealed the plaintiff incurred about $45,000 in medical expenses related to her injuries, plus about $750 in lost wages. Obviously, this does not add up to $75,000. The defendant argued that the plaintiff is likely to incur additional expenses of “$40,000 to $45,000 for discovery and trial,” but the judge said that was “purely speculative and insufficient to establish, by the preponderance of the evidence, that damages will exceed $75,000.” Consequently, the judge denied removal and returned the case to DeKalb County Superior Court.