Where you go to trial isn’t as simple as the court nearest to where you live. Lawsuit locations are influenced by several factors and, this might surprise you, your FELA attorney actually has a say in which court you land. And if your lawyer is strategic, that location could improve your outcome.
The answer to this one takes understanding two legal concepts – jurisdiction and venue. Jurisdiction means which court is allowed to handle your case. Assuming there is more than one court that is allowed to hear your case, venue means which of those courts is best-suited to hear your case.
Since 2017, when a case called BNSF v. Tyrell, 137 S. Ct. 1549 (2017) came out of the U.S. Supreme Court, jurisdiction for FELA cases is usually in one of three places:
1) Where the accident happened
2) Where the railroad is incorporated
3) Where the railroad has its headquarters.
Before explaining each of these, I will mention that there are times when a railroad can be sucked into handling a case someplace other than one of those three places, but it depends on the extent of the railroad’s activities in that other location as compared to its operations generally.
What happens before your FELA trial is just as important as what happens during the trial.
If you’ve hired a FELA attorney, he or she will work on your behalf to select the venue best for you. Meaning, you want your lawsuit decided in the jurisdiction and venue most likely to result in the best recovery. And at the same time the railroad will be arguing for their best position. If push comes to shove, the court will take all this into account and make a final determination of where the case will appear.
Some courts like the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia are noted for returning larger recoveries. There is a joke among FELA lawyers that if you’re in Philly you can add another zero to the recovery. That must be why there are so many lawyers in the City of Brotherly Love.
There may be cities where your attorney doesn’t want your case to appear, like perhaps Fort Worth, TX where BNSF is headquartered. You could argue that a plaintiff (that’s you) might have a hard time overcoming the hometown loyalty here.
The next consideration your attorney will make is whether the court might move your case from one of the three locations (known in the law as venues) to one of the others based on something called forum non conveniens. This basically means “inconvenient forum.” The court, often at the request of the railroad in something called a “motion to transfer”, looks at which venue makes the most sense in the eyes of the law. As an example, recently a suit I filed in Manhattan federal court for an LIRR case was kicked out to Brooklyn because the client was hurt there, lives there and had treatment there.
The details of your unique case will be key as you and your counsel work together to determine the best place to submit your lawsuit. Some of the things your lawyer will consider: Where was the medical treatment? Where are the witnesses located? Where was the training provided? Where was a piece of equipment serviced? Knowing what evidence to collect to influence the ultimate evaluation by the court is critical to keeping the case where you want it. There are some courthouses in the country that are well known for resulting in higher average verdicts than others. The railroad lawyers know what courts those are. Knowing where to file suit and what it takes to stay there, is an important part of being an experienced FELA attorney.
For example, I recently filed a case in Louisiana, where my client lives and received his treatment. But he was hurt working in Mississippi and the railroad is based in Illinois. The railroad challenged my filing and the court kicked the case out of Louisiana saying there was not enough connection to find jurisdiction there. It is frustrating, to say the least.
The good news is that if you have an attorney experienced with trying FELA cases in courts around the country against various railroads, you’ll have a powerful advocate in filing your lawsuit. You can get started on your own lawsuit right now, on your own. Get the checklist.