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In Personal Injury the Fed Looks to the State

In a recent blog, I wrote of the inability to use the federal courts to gain jurisdiction over a defendant who does not have sufficient minimum contacts with the forum state. That blog was in response to the misperception of many that all a litigant needs to do is to sue in federal court to gain jurisdiction over any defendant. Not true. Because the federal court applies the same analysis on jurisdiction that the state in which it sits would apply, there is no advantage in that instance to bringing an action in a federal court. Consequently, if you didn’t have jurisdiction over a particular defendant in state court in Massachusetts, you would not have jurisdiction over that same defendant in federal court in Massachusetts.

In a similar vein, if you are able to bring an action in federal court for personal injury – because of diversity of citizenship between the parties – and you have jurisdiction over the defendant, would the federal court apply the same principles of tort law that the state in which it sits applies?  The answer is yes. The United States District Court in Massachusetts for example will look to the tort cases of the Supreme Judicial Court and the Massachusetts Appeals Court to determine the relevant law. There is no benefit to forum shopping as there is no federal common law. In the seminal case of Erie v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64 (1938), the Supreme Court ruled that in cases of diversity jurisdiction, the courts had to use the same laws as the states in which they were situated. This has allowed for a uniform application of laws.

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