In the United States, our court system, like our government generally, is split between two levels: State courts are courts of general jurisdiction and can hear pretty much any kind of legal dispute. In contrast, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction—they can only hear cases that the Constitution or a federal statute says they can hear.
So, it should come as no surprise that state courts in Illinois have jurisdiction to hear personal injury lawsuits. In fact, the Illinois Legislature and Illinois Supreme Courts are the ultimate authorities on what personal injury law is in Illinois, subject only to a relatively few constitutional constraints (like the limits on punitive damages under the Due Process Clause).
But what about the federal courts? It turns out that they also have jurisdiction in some types of personal injury lawsuits, which opens the door to some litigation strategy in determining whether to file those suits in state or federal court. Here’s a quick summary of when federal courts will get involved in a personal injury lawsuit in Illinois.
Federal Courts’ Subject Matter Jurisdiction
“Subject matter jurisdiction” refers to a court’s authority to hear cases of a particular sort. As courts of limited jurisdiction, the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction in only relatively few cases—the key word being “relatively,” as federal courts are still swamped with lawsuits every year. Two of the most common bases for a federal court’s subject matter jurisdiction are 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1332.
28 U.S.C. § 1331: Federal Question Jurisdiction
Under section 1331, federal district courts have jurisdiction in all civil actions arising under the U.S. Constitution or federal laws or treaties. Most personal injury cases do not fit this definition, although some special types of personal injury cases do.
28 U.S.C. § 1332: Diversity Jurisdiction
Section 1332 provides jurisdiction in any cases between citizens of different states in which the amount in controversy is greater than $75,000. When personal injury lawsuits are filed in federal court, they’re usually based on this type of jurisdiction. To qualify, all that’s required is that the amount-in-controversy be satisfied and that the lawsuit involve a total diversity of parties—no plaintiff is from the same state as any defendant.
In such cases, the federal courts don’t actually apply federal law. Instead, they apply the law of the state where they sit to determine who wins. As odd as it may sound, when a federal court exercises its diversity jurisdiction, it must follow the decisions of the state high court, such as Illinois’ Supreme Court.
Does it Matter Where a Lawsuit is Filed?
If most personal injury cases that end up in federal court are filed using the court’s diversity jurisdiction, and if that means the federal court must apply state law, then what difference does it make whether the lawsuit is filed in state or federal court?
Theoretically, it shouldn’t make any difference. But in practice, state and federal courts follow different rules of procedure and draw from different jury pools, meaning that it can, ultimately, make a difference. In fact, a common rule of thumb is that federal court will be friendlier to a defendant, though every case must be examined on its own merits.
Of course, this is a somewhat technical answer to a somewhat technical question. What’s most important is that you know that if you have a personal injury claim in Illinois, you need to consult a personal injury attorney to help you decide how best to proceed with that claim. That may involve choosing between state and federal court for your case, or even settling your claim outside of court through arbitration. If you’ve been injured and are unsure what to do next, contact Costa Ivone today for a free case evaluation.
Costa Ivone, LLC
6847 W Cermak Rd
Berwyn, IL 60402