A key step in bringing any personal injury lawsuit is deciding what court to file in. While personal injury claims are mostly governed by state law, federal courts have jurisdiction to hear cases where there is “complete diversity” among the parties. This means that none of the plaintiffs can reside in the same state as any of the plaintiffs. For example, if the plaintiff is a Georgia resident and there is one defendant who resides in Florida, there is complete diversity and the case should be heard in federal court. However, if there is a second defendant who also resides in Georgia, the case would be tried in state court. (Corporations usually “reside” in the state of their incorporation, not necessarily where they do business.)
Ishmael v. General Growth Properties, Inc.
Here is an illustration of how courts sort out jurisdiction. This case arises from a toddler injured at a mall in Augusta. The child fell into a water fountain located inside the mall. The child’s mother sued a number of defendants, accusing them of maintaining a “dangerous condition” by locating the fountain near a children’s play area.
This is a premises liability claim governed by Georgia law, which requires the “owner or occupier of land” to “exercise ordinary care” in keeping their property safe. The plaintiff named the mall’s owner, an out-of-state corporation, as a defendant. She also named the mall’s general manager, who is a Georgia resident. Accordingly, the plaintiff initially filed her complaint in Georgia state court.
The defendants had the case removed (transferred) to federal court. But in an order dated December 29, 2014, U.S. District Judge J. Randal Hall of Augusta remanded (returned) the case to state court. The defendants argued the general manager was not a proper party to this case, and the plaintiff only named him in an improper effort to keep her case in state court.
Judge Hall said that at this stage of the litigation, the plaintiff had presented a plausible argument that the general manager might be legally liable for the child’s injuries. The judge noted, “A number of Georgia courts have interpreted the meaning of ‘owner or occupier’ to include those with something less than a legal possessory interest,” such as a manager. In fact, Judge Hall said there is “some uncertainty” whether a store manager can be held individually liable for injuries to patrons. Because of this confusion, Judge Hall said he had to give the plaintiff the benefit of the doubt when determining whether complete diversity exists.
Of course, Judge Hall did not address the merits of the plaintiff’s case. Back in state court, a judge may still decide the general manager cannot be held responsible for the accident. The question for the state court to resolve is whether the general manager “exercised sufficient control” over the mall premises such that he could be held personally liable.