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How Jurisdiction Can Affect Your Atlanta Accident Lawsuit

If you have been seriously hurt in an Atlanta car accident, you have the right to sue a negligent driver or other parties whose actions may have contributed to your injuries. On paper that sounds simple enough. But filing a personal injury claim filing a car accident raises a number of legal issues that can get quite complicated. This is just one reason you should always work with a qualified Atlanta car accident lawyer before you even think about going to court.

What Is Jurisdiction?

One legal issue that trips up a lot of car accident claims in Georgia is jurisdiction. In plain terms, jurisdiction refers to the legal authority of a court to hear a case in the first place. It does not matter if you have all of the evidence in the world proving the other driver was at-fault for a car accident–if you file your lawsuit in a court that lacks jurisdiction, your case will be dismissed well before it ever gets in front of the jury.

Jurisdiction can get complicated for a few reasons. The first is the dual-nature of U.S. courts. In our system there are both federal and state courts. Now, personal injury claims arising from a car accident typically fall under state law. So most of the time, a Georgia accident victim will file their lawsuit in a Georgia superior court. But there are circumstances that may allow a defendant to transfer a state personal injury lawsuit to federal court.

This process is known as removal. There are two basic requirements for removal. The first is that there must be “complete diversity” between the parties. Diversity in this context is not a reference to race or culture. Rather, it means “diversity of citizenship.” Essentially, if you are a Georgia resident and you sue a non-Georgia resident, there is a complete diversity of citizenship.

To give a simple hypothetical example, say you live in Atlanta and are driving down a Georgia road when another car plows into you at an intersection. The other driver is a Florida resident who was traveling through Atlanta on business. Since you are both citizens of different states, there would be a complete diversity of citizenship. If you later filed a personal injury lawsuit against that driver in Georgia state court, they could seek to remove the case to federal court.

Things can get more complicated, however, if there is more than one defendant. Say the driver of the other car was, like you, a Georgia resident, but their employer was a Florida-based company. If you named the employer as a co-defendant–alleging it was vicariously liable for the employee’s negligence–could the employer then seek removal to federal court? The answer would be “no,” since complete diversity means that all of the defendants must come from a different state than the plaintiff. But if both the employer and employee came from Florida, then there would be complete diversity.

Is Your Case Worth More Than $75,000?

The second requirement for removal is that the “amount in controversy” must exceed $75,000. This basically refers to the amount of money that the plaintiff is seeking in the lawsuit. The actual amount of a personal injury claim arising from a car accident can be difficult to ascertain at the start of a case. But there are certain general principles a court will look at when determining if the $75,000 threshold has been met.

A recent decision from a federal judge in Atlanta, Huggins v. Langdon, provides a real-life example. This case arose from a 2019 car accident in Henry County, Georgia. Prior to the lawsuit, the plaintiff sent a “demand letter” offering to settle her potential personal injury claims for $500,000. The parties proceeded to exchange counter-offers. At one point the plaintiff reduced her demand to $150,000 but the defense refused to offer more than $65,000. As negotiations stalled, the plaintiff filed her lawsuit in state court. The lawsuit did not specify an exact dollar amount sought, only that she was seeking all damages available to her under Georgia law.

The defendants then sought removal to federal court. The judge agreed that the defense satisfied the requirements for removal. With respect to the amount in controversy, the judge said the fact the plaintiff initially demanded $500,000 did not, in and of itself, prove the actual amount in controversy. Indeed, the judge noted demand letters are often a negotiating tactic that does not reflect an “honest assessment of damages.” Nevertheless, here the judge noted the plaintiff’s own evidence showed she had at least $50,000 in medical bills from the accident. When added to the additional damages the plaintiff would likely seek, and the fact she responded to the defense’s final offer of $65,000 with a $150,000 counter-offer, it was likely the total amount of her damages would exceed $75,000. So the case remains in federal court.

Establishing Personal Jurisdiction

One final note about jurisdiction. If you are suing an out-of-state company in a Georgia court–state or federal–you must establish that the court has “personal jurisdiction” over the defendant. Another recent decision–from the same federal judge as the case above–provides yet another useful illustration of what this means.

In this case, Teasley v. Toyota Motor Corporation, the plaintiffs were injured in a car accident that occurred in Georgia. After the collision, the plaintiffs alleged their Toyota’s airbag system failed to work properly due to a malfunction. The plaintiffs subsequently sued a number of defendants responsible for manufacturing the vehicle and its parts, including a Delaware company that was based in Michigan.

That company moved to dismiss itself as a defendant on the grounds a Georgia court lacked “personal jurisdiction”.” The judge agreed. Like most states, Georgia has a “long-arm statute” that allows judges in the state to assert personal jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants. But the long-arm law requires some proof that the out-of-state defendant transacts business in Georgia. Here, the judge noted that the Michigan defendant did not actually sell anything to consumers in Georgia. Rather, it manufactured a part that it then sold to Toyota for use in their vehicles’ airbag system. This was not enough to establish a long-arm connection.

Speak with an Atlanta Car Accident Attorney Today

As you can see, filing a personal injury claim following a car accident requires navigating a number of complex legal issues. Our qualified Atlanta car accident lawyers can help guide you through this process. Contact Stewart Miller Simmons Trial Attorneys today at (404) 529-3476 to schedule a free consultation with a member of our team.