Let's assume that you are on vacation in Florida. You're having a great time -- you're staying at a fantastic resort, the weather is perfect, and your kids have been surprisingly well-behaved. It seems like nothing could go wrong. However, one night, after you've loaded up the family into the car and are driving to dinner, another vehicle slams into the driver's side of your car, seemingly out of nowhere. The impact causes minor injuries to the passengers, but you, as the driver, bear the brunt of the impact and suffer severe injuries that require several days of hospitalization and thousands of dollars' worth of medical care.
It turns out that the other driver had a blood alcohol content (BAC) that was almost twice the legal limit and was running a red light when he hit you. Ordinarily, this would be a straightforward personal injury case were it not for the fact that you live out of state. Let's assume you live in North Carolina. It turns out that the other driver was also on vacation from out of state. Let's assume he lives in Missouri. Unfortunately, situations like this are all too common in areas with high rates of tourism like Florida, and complex issues arise when accidents occur involving two parties from different states.
This post will discuss some of the more complex jurisdictional issues surrounding litigation among parties who are residents of different states.
Where Can You Sue?
To bring a lawsuit against a person, the court that you file the suit in must have personal jurisdiction over them. Personal jurisdiction is simply the power that a court has over the parties in a case. But not all courts have power over all parties. To establish personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff must show that the defendant had sufficient contacts with the state in which the court sits. "Sufficient contacts" merely means that a person has purposefully availed himself of the benefits and protections offered by the state in question. This can include such actions as traveling to the state, doing business in the state, or even maintaining a website in the state.
In our hypothetical above, personal jurisdiction over the defendant could be established in either Florida, where the defendant was on vacation and committed his tortious actions, or Missouri, where the defendant lives. A court in your home state of North Caroline likely would not be able to exercise personal jurisdiction over the defendant, since he has had no contacts with that state. On top of the sufficient contacts doctrine, each state also has a "long-arm" statute that enumerates what kind of actions will subject a person to personal jurisdiction in that state.
Florida's long-arm statute enumerates several actions that will subject a person to jurisdiction there, including:
- Operating a business venture in the state
- Owning a mortgage or lien on any real property in the state
- Committing a tortious act within the state
- Selling products in the state
- Entering into a contract in the state
- Breaching a contract in the state
- Engaging in solicitation or service activities within the state
Because the activities the defendant engaged in -- committing a tortious act in Florida -- fall under Florida's long-arm statute, a court in Florida would be able to exercise personal jurisdiction over him.
State Court vs. Federal Court
Although you could have sued the defendant in Missouri, you decide to sue in Florida, since you have the state's long-arm statute on your side and Florida is where the events occurred. Because the defendant you sued is not a resident of Florida, there is a distinct possibility that he will file a motion to have your case removed to federal court. "Removal" means that a case filed in state court is transferred to federal court.
How Can He Do That?
Well, to avoid potential prejudice to out-of-state litigants, the federal statute grants defendants the right to remove an action to federal court if it meets certain requirements. A case is removable to federal court if (a) the action arises under federal law, or (b) the parties are all citizens of different states, and the amount in controversy is $75,000 or more. In this case, we'll assume that your damages were indeed more than $75,000. Because complete diversity of citizenship exists among the parties -- meaning that no party is a citizen of the same state as any other party -- and the amount in controversy is over $75,000, a court likely would grant the defendant's motion to remove the case to federal court.
So now your case is in federal court. What happens next? Because your case was originally filed in state court based on state law claims and federal jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship, the federal court will apply the substantive law of the state of Florida to your case. The only difference will be that the court will now be applying federal procedural law rather than Florida procedural law.
Location of Litigation
"Venue" has to do with the precise location of where a lawsuit may be filed or heard. A civil action may be brought in any federal court in which the defendant resides or where a substantial portion of the events giving rise to the claim occurred, and any party can request a transfer of venue to another court that would be more convenient to the parties. Here, the defendant could file a motion to transfer venue to a federal court in Missouri after his motion to remove the action to federal court in Florida, since you could have chosen to sue the defendant in his home state. However, the plaintiff's choice of venue is given heavy deference, and convenience of the witnesses is also a very important factor to consider. Let's assume that there were three witnesses to the accident, all of whom live in Florida. In this case, a court likely would deny the defendant's motion to transfer venue to Missouri, since you chose Florida as the location of the litigation and all the witnesses live in Florida.