Removal jurisdiction permits a defendant to transfer a case from state court to federal court.

Posted in truck accident on November 15, 2021

Usually, when you file a lawsuit, you file the lawsuit in the county where the defendant driver lives.  But not always. Where you file and who you name can be nuanced.  Having a knowledgeable and experienced Atlanta personal injury lawyer who studies the law does make a real difference.

Do you File a Truck Accident case in State Court or Federal Court?

On October 15, 2020, a semi driver was operating a Summitt freightliner truck, when he allegedly “violently” caused his big rig to hit Miranda Black’s vehicle. As a result of the accident, she sued for damages for past and future medical treatment, past and future lost wages, past and future pain and suffering, and permanent injuries. Ms. Black specifically asked for $29,482.00 for medical expenses already incurred. Plus, she sought punitive damages and attorneys’ fees. The Defendant truck company and its driver removed the case to federal district court.

What is “Removal”?

Removal jurisdiction permits a defendant to move or transfer a civil action filed in a state court to the United States district court where the state court is located. A federal statute that governs removal, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) says that civil actions between citizens of different states with an amount of controversy exceeding $75,000 can be heard in federal court.

Here, the trucking company wanted to move the case to the federal district court for the Northern District of Georgia from the Georgia State Court of DeKalb County. The Plaintiff opposed this and sought a remand, arguing the amount in controversy wasn’t met.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael L. Brown wrote that a case may be removed from state to federal court only if the federal court has original jurisdiction over the action. And aside from cases arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States, district courts have original jurisdiction over civil actions between citizens of different states with an amount of controversy exceeding $75,000. Also, Judge Brown said that a district court must construe removal statutes narrowly, resolving all doubts against removal.

The Plaintiff Didn’t Plead a Specific Amount of Damages in her Complaint

Ms. Black wanted to keep the case in state court and argued that the amount in controversy wasn’t met. She said that the complaint identified a specific amount of damages ($29,482), but that referred only to the damages she sought for her past medical expenses. However, in addition to that, she sought damages for future medical expenses, past and future lost wages, loss of earning capacity, past and future pain and suffering, permanent injuries, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees. As a result, she said that the complaint didn’t have a specific amount of total damages.

Judge Brown agreed and explained that where, as here, the plaintiff hasn’t pled a specific amount of damages, the removing defendant must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional requirement. In some cases, the judge said, it may be “facially apparent” from the complaint that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional requirement, even when the complaint doesn’t claim a specific amount of damages. Here, the amount in controversy isn’t so apparent, the judge held.

“Simply put, there is no way to determine from the complaint whether Plaintiff has been so badly injured as to make an award of over $75,000 more likely than not,” Judge Brown wrote.

Ms. Black’s complaint merely asserted that she suffered “severe injuries” as a result of the automobile accident, specifies $29,482 in past medical expenses, and seeks damages for future medical expenses, past and future lost wages, loss of earning capacity, past and future pain and suffering, permanent injuries, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees. The judge said these allegations didn’t suggest that the amount in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional amount. Therefore, Judge Brown rejected the trucking company’s conclusory assertion that it need not look further than the complaint to determine the amount in controversy is satisfied.

The Judge Looked at Other Evidence to Determine the Amount in Controversy

The judge explained that when the jurisdictional amount isn’t facially apparent from the complaint, courts look to the notice of removal and other types of relevant evidence. If the basis for federal jurisdiction is unclear from the notice of removal and accompanying documents, the court can’t “speculate” about the amount in controversy.

Here, in both the notice of removal and the opposition to remand, the Defendants claimed that the amount in controversy exceeded $75,000 and relied on several things to show the amount in controversy was met.

First, they pointed to Ms. Black’s allegation that she incurred $29,482 in medical expenses and that the figure could be used in calculating the amount in controversy. But the judge noted that this figure was less than half the jurisdictional amount, leaving a balance of $45,518 which forced the court “to take quite a leap to infer the amount in controversy is met.”

Next, the Defendants pointed to the Plaintiff’s allegations that she sustained serious physical injuries and was entitled to damages for past and future medical treatment, past and future lost wages, past and future conscious pain and suffering, and permanent injuries. But a “generic scattershot list of unspecified damages is unhelpful,” the judge said.

The Defendants also noted the Plaintiff sought punitive damages, “which under Georgia law are available up to $250,000.00.” But Judge Brown said that while punitive damages should be considered when calculating the amount in controversy, it’s well established that a statutory cap on punitive damages alone can’t be used to determine the amount in controversy. And here, the trucking company and the semi driver did nothing more than point to the fact that Plaintiff is requesting punitive damages. That’s not enough, the judge said. “To assign a dollar value to Plaintiff’s punitive damages claim at this juncture would require pure speculation.”

Next, the Defendants raised Plaintiff’s pre-suit demand in which she sought to settle her claims for $200,000. Judge Brown said that courts may consider settlement offers in deciding the amount in controversy, but what it counts for depends on the circumstances. And settlement offers commonly reflect “puffing and posturing” and are therefore “entitled to little weight in measuring the preponderance of the evidence.”

The Judge’s Decision

After reviewing all the evidence presented, Judge Brown couldn’t say with certainty that the Defendants had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. As such, the judge exercised the presumption in favor of Plaintiff and remanded the matter to the Georgia State Court of DeKalb County. Black v. Moore, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213214 (N.D. Ga. November 4, 2021).

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