In the United States, there are essentially two different justice systems for resolving personal injury lawsuits and other types of civil lawsuits.
There are federal courts, which are primarily created by the United States Constitution (though some specialty courts, like Bankruptcy Courts are created by the other branches of government). There are also state courts, which are principally created by state governments.
Determining which system will decide a civil suit — which is a question of which court system has jurisdiction — depends upon the answers to a couple of questions.*
Federal courts are only allowed to decide very specific kinds of cases. One type of case that federal courts can resolve are cases that involve what are known as federal questions.
A federal question exists when the case arises under the United States Constitution, a federal law, or a federal treaty. There are some complex legal tests that attorneys use to determine whether a case meets that requirement or not, but generally, the courts review the parties’ papers to determine whether the case presents a federal question or not.
If there is a federal question, a federal court has jurisdiction no matter the amount of damages sought.
If the case does not involve a federal question, a federal court can decide it only if the parties in the case are “diverse,” and then only if the case involves money damages of at least $75,000.
To determine if the parties are diverse, attorneys and courts examine the citizenship of each of the plaintiffs and compare it to the citizenship of each of the defendants. There are some specific requirements applicable to determining the citizenship of particular parties, but basically, if all of the plaintiffs are from different states or countries than all of the defendants, they are diverse.
By way of example, diversity will exist if a case involves 3 plaintiffs who are all from Texas and 2 defendants who are from Louisiana and Oklahoma. But in a suit against those same two defendants, there is no diversity if 2 of the plaintiffs are from Texas and 1 is from Louisiana. In the second example, at least one plaintiff and at least one defendant are from the same state, Louisiana; when that is the case, there is no diversity and, unless there is a federal question, the case cannot proceed in federal court.
Where a case does not present a federal question and where the parties to the case are no diverse from one another, the case will almost certainly be within the jurisdiction of the state courts and will proceed in the state court system.
The Plaintiff generally has the choice to decide whether to file a lawsuit in state or federal court, and that decision is usually made after attorneys have accounted for a number of considerations. But the choice to file a case in state court does not do away with the possibility that the defendant may seek to have it heard by a federal court. It can accomplish this by a process called removal, which essentially moves the case from state court to federal court based upon the claim that it involves a federal question or that the parties are diverse.** Thus, filing a case in state court does not necessarily ensure that it will ultimately be resolved in state court.
Michael J. Murray
Board Certified – Civil Appellate Law
Texas Board of Legal Specialization
WATTS GUERRA LLP
Four Dominion Drive, Bldg. Three, Suite 100
San Antonio, Texas 78257
Phone: (210) 447-0500
Wondering how long your case will take? Check out our blog discussing all the factors you need to consider when your case goes to court.