What Happens When Personal Injury Cases Go to Federal Court
By The Elmore and Smith Law Firm, PC on July 11, 2019 | In Personal Injury
In North Carolina, there are two (2) separate judicial systems where personal injury cases might be tried: state court and federal court. State court is the de facto jurisdiction for personal injury cases. Personal injury cases are, for the most part, based upon state laws regarding negligence. In North Carolina, every county in the state has its own courthouse where serious personal injury cases are tried. Trials are held in front of 12 jurors from that county and the judge is usually elected by persons in that county.
Sometimes, however, a federal court can gain jurisdiction over a state personal injury. The most common way federal courts gain jurisdiction over personal injury cases is under “diversity jurisdiction”. In diversity jurisdiction, the defendant is from a different state than the plaintiff. An example would be a North Carolina resident injured in a North Carolina tractor-trailer wreck by a tractor-trailer driver from South Carolina. In those situations, if the “amount in controversy” (usually the amount of damages) is over $75,000, either party has the option of choosing the federal court. If the case is removed to federal court, North Carolina personal injury laws will still apply, although federal laws of the procedure will be used rather than state laws.
Another way federal courts gain jurisdiction over personal injury cases is if the underlying law which justifies the lawsuit is a federal law. This “original jurisdiction” is rare in personal injury cases as most personal injury law is based on state law. However, it does occasionally occur, such as in personal injury cases involving police brutality (42 U.S.C. section 1983)
Differences Between Federal and State Court
There are many similarities between state and federal courts. Both have juries, similar rules of evidence and procedure, and are presided over by a single judge. However, there are important differences between the two systems.
First, in federal court, juries are selected from multiple counties rather than just the one home county in state court. If a home county is known for small verdicts, the federal court might be more attractive. Judges in state court are usually elected after running an election in their home county, while judges in federal court are appointed for life by the U.S president.
Second, the federal court’s rules governing how a case is processed are different from state court. In federal court, each motion in the case must be accompanied by a brief, which can increase the costs of litigation. Further, litigants to motion are not guaranteed a right to argue their positions in court, whereas they have this right in state court. Federal court personal injury cases can also take longer, as federal court judges can often take a year to rule on preliminary motions, meanwhile, litigants must wait with their case in limbo during this time. Federal courts also require “electronic” filing, which allows litigants to file pleadings on-line. Currently, no state court in North Carolina has electronic filing. Electronic filing is usually easier for attorneys and can save time and money in trips to the courthouse.
Another important difference between a federal court and state court personal injury trials is how “voir dire” is conducted. In North Carolina personal injury trials, attorneys can ask many questions of potential jurors to determine which jurors might be best suited to hear the case. Voir Dire can take hours or even days. In federal court, this process is most preempted by the judge and attorneys are limited in asking questions of potential jurors.
If a case is appealed from state court, the appeal is heard by the N.C. Court of Appeals in Raleigh, whose judges are elected statewide. From there, the case can be appealed to N.C. Supreme Court, whose justices are also elected statewide. In federal court, the personal injury case would be appealed to the Circuit Court of Appeals (for North Carolina, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia). Judges on the circuit court are also appointed for life by the U.S. President. From there, the case can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, although the U.S. Supreme Court can choose not to hear the matter. Only a very select few cases are heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Choosing Between Federal and State Court for your Personal Injury Case
As discussed above, if both the defendant and the plaintiff (injured person) are from the same state, the state court will apply. Therefore, in most personal injury cases, the only state court is available. However, if there is an option for federal court due to diversity jurisdiction, it should be considered. Factors include the reputation of the defendant and injured a person in the home county, the reputation of the judges in the home county, the reputation of the county for awarding fair personal injury verdicts, and whether the case is likely to be appealed by either side.
Another factor is the location of witnesses. Out of state witnesses must obey a federal subpoena issued by an attorney, but a state subpoena is not effective unless the attorney goes through a lengthy and expensive domestication process. It is important to have an attorney that is familiar with both systems so that the personal injury case can effectively be prosecuted regardless of which system has the case.