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State vs. Federal Court: Who Will Decide My Personal Injury Lawsuit?


A personal injury lawsuit may be heard in either state or federal court. Which court actually hears a case often depends on the citizenship of the parties. For example, let’s say you are a Tennessee citizen who gets into a car accident with a Kentucky citizen. You initially sue the Kentucky driver in Tennessee state court. The Kentucky driver may then seek to transfer–or remove–your lawsuit to federal court.

Now, what happens if your accident involves multiple defendants? Say there is a second defendant who, like you, is a Tennessee citizen. In that scenario, your lawsuit will remain in state court. The reason for this is that federal courts can only exercise jurisdiction over state-based personal injury claims if there is a “complete diversity” of the parties, i.e., none of the plaintiffs are from the same state as any of the defendants. So if you name a dozen defendants, as long as one of them is from the same state as you, then your case must remain in state court.

Judge: Adding Employer to Lawsuit Was “Fraudulent Joinder”

Because of this rule, federal judges are careful to keep an eye out for what is considered “fraudulent joinder.” This basically refers to a situation where the court believes a plaintiff has added a defendant improperly solely for the purpose of defeating diversity jurisdiction. When a fraudulent joinder occurs, the judge will “disregard” the citizenship of the fraudulently joined defendant and retain jurisdiction over the case.

Here is a practical example of what we are talking about. This is taken from a recent decision from a federal judge in Columbia, Tennessee, Smythe v. Yizumi-HPM Corporation. The plaintiff in this case is a Tennessee citizen who was seriously burned when a machine at his workplace “sprayed him with molten aluminum.” The plaintiff subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit in Tennessee state court against his employer, a Tennessee corporation, along with several non-Tennessee businesses.

The state court eventually dismissed the employer as a defendant, holding that any claims against it were barred by Tennessee workers’ compensation law. One of the remaining out-of-state defendants then removed the case to federal court, arguing the dismissal of the only Tennessee defendant created complete diversity. The plaintiff then moved to return–or remand–the case back to state court.

But the federal court ultimately decided to retain jurisdiction, pointing to the fraudulent joinder exception. In this case, the federal judge said the plaintiff never had a reasonable legal claim against his employer, the only Tennessee-based defendant. Indeed, it is well-settled under Tennessee law that workers’ compensation provides an “exclusive remedy” for employees against their employers when it comes to a work-related accident. So the judge said it was appropriate to “disregard” the employer’s citizenship for purposes of determining federal jurisdiction.

Speak with a Tennessee Personal Injury Lawyer Today

Determining which court will hear a personal injury case is just one of many critical decisions involved in any such lawsuit. If you need advice or representation from an experienced Clinton personal injury attorney, contact Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, today to schedule a free consultation.




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