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Chapter 3 Courts and the Legal Process

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to do the following:

  1. Describe the two different court systems in the United States, and explain why some cases can be filed in either court system.
  2. Explain the importance of subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction and know the difference between the two.
  3. Describe the various stages of a civil action: from pleadings, to discovery, to trial, and to appeals.
  4. Describe two alternatives to litigation: mediation and arbitration.

In the United States, law and government are interdependent. The Constitution establishes the basic framework of government and imposes certain limitations on the powers of government. In turn, the various branches of government are intimately involved in making, enforcing, and interpreting the law. Today, much of the law comes from Congress and the state legislatures. But it is in the courts that legislation is interpreted and prior case law is interpreted and applied.

As we go through this chapter, consider the case of Harry and Kay Robinson. In which court should the Robinsons file their action? Can the Oklahoma court hear the case and make a judgment that will be enforceable against all of the defendants? Which law will the court use to come to a decision? Will it use New York law, Oklahoma law, federal law, or German law?

Robinson v. Audi

Harry and Kay Robinson purchased a new Audi automobile from Seaway Volkswagen, Inc. (Seaway), in Massena, New York, in 1976. The following year the Robinson family, who resided in New York, left that state for a new home in Arizona. As they passed through Oklahoma, another car struck their Audi in the rear, causing a fire that severely burned Kay Robinson and her two children. Later on, the Robinsons brought a products-liability action in the District Court for Creek County, Oklahoma, claiming that their injuries resulted from the defective design and placement of the Audi’s gas tank and fuel system. They sued numerous defendants, including the automobile’s manufacturer, Audi NSU Auto Union Aktiengesellschaft (Audi); its importer, Volkswagen of America, Inc. (Volkswagen); its regional distributor, World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. (World-Wide); and its retail dealer, Seaway.

Should the Robinsons bring their action in state court or in federal court? Over which of the defendants will the court have personal jurisdiction?

3.1 The Relationship between State and Federal Court Systems in the United States

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the different but complementary roles of state and federal court systems.
  2. Explain why it makes sense for some courts to hear and decide only certain kinds of cases.
  3. Describe the difference between a trial court and an appellate court.

Although it is sometimes said that there are two separate court systems, the reality is more complex. There are, in fact, fifty-two court systems: those of the fifty states, the local court system in the District of Columbia, and the federal court system. At the same time, these are not entirely separate; they all have several points of contact.

State and local courts must honor both federal law and the laws of the other states. First, state courts must honor federal law where state laws are in conflict with federal laws (under the supremacy clause of the Constitution; see Chapter 4 "Constitutional Law and US Commerce"). Second, claims arising under federal statutes can often be tried in the state courts, where the Constitution or Congress has not explicitly required that only federal courts can hear that kind of claim. Third, under the full faith and credit clause, each state court is obligated to respect the final judgments of courts in other states. Thus a contract dispute resolved by an Arkansas court cannot be relitigated in North Dakota when the plaintiff wants to collect on the Arkansas judgment in North Dakota. Fourth, state courts often must consider the laws of other states in deciding cases involving issues where two states have an interest, such as when drivers from two different states collide in a third state. Under these circumstances, state judges will consult their own state’s case decisions involving conflicts of laws and sometimes decide that they must apply another state’s laws to decide the case (see Table 3.1 "Sample Conflict-of-Law Principles").

As state courts are concerned with federal law, so federal courts are often concerned with state law and with what happens in state courts. Federal courts will consider state-law-based claims when a case involves claims using both state and federal law. Claims based on federal laws will permit the federal court to take jurisdiction over the whole case, including any state issues raised. In those cases, the federal court is said to exercise “pendent jurisdiction” over the state claims. Also, the Supreme Court will occasionally take appeals from a state supreme court where state law raises an important issue of federal law to be decided. For example, a convict on death row may claim that the state’s chosen method of execution using the injection of drugs is unusually painful and involves “cruel and unusual punishment,” raising an Eighth Amendment issue.

There is also a broad category of cases heard in federal courts that concern only state legal issues—namely, cases that arise between citizens of different states. The federal courts are permitted to hear these cases under their so-called diversity of citizenship jurisdictionSubject matter jurisdiction in federal court where the plaintiff is a citizen of one state, no defendant is also a citizen of that state, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. (or diversity jurisdiction). A citizen of New Jersey may sue a citizen of New York over a contract dispute in federal court, but if both were citizens of New Jersey, the plaintiff would be limited to the state courts. The Constitution established diversity jurisdiction because it was feared that local courts would be hostile toward people from other states and that they would need separate courts. In 2009, nearly a third of all lawsuits filed in federal court were based on diversity of citizenship. In these cases, the federal courts were applying state law, rather than taking federal question jurisdictionFederal court subject matter jurisdiction based on a complaint that uses a federal statutory, regulatory, or constitutional law as a cause of action., where federal law provided the basis for the lawsuit or where the United States was a party (as plaintiff or defendant).

Why are there so many diversity cases in federal courts? Defense lawyers believe that there is sometimes a “home-court advantage” for an in-state plaintiff who brings a lawsuit against a nonresident in his local state court. The defense attorney is entitled to ask for removalThe right of a defendant to remove a case from state to federal court. to a federal court where there is diversity. This fits with the original reason for diversity jurisdiction in the Constitution—the concern that judges in one state court would favor the in-state plaintiff rather than a nonresident defendant. Another reason there are so many diversity cases is that plaintiffs’ attorneys know that removal is common and that it will move the case along faster by filing in federal court to begin with. Some plaintiffs’ attorneys also find advantages in pursuing a lawsuit in federal court. Federal court procedures are often more efficient than state court procedures, so that federal dockets are often less crowded. This means a case will get to trial faster, and many lawyers enjoy the higher status that comes in practicing before the federal bench. In some federal districts, judgments for plaintiffs may be higher, on average, than in the local state court. In short, not only law but also legal strategy factor into the popularity of diversity cases in federal courts.

State Court Systems

The vast majority of civil lawsuits in the United States are filed in state courts. Two aspects of civil lawsuits are common to all state courts: trials and appeals. A court exercising a trial function has original jurisdictionThe jurisdiction that a judge has to hear witnesses and receive evidence in a trial proceeding.—that is, jurisdiction to determine the facts of the case and apply the law to them. A court that hears appeals from the trial court is said to have appellate jurisdictionthe jurisdiction of an appellate court to review whether the parties received a fair trial in accordance with applicable law. Appellate jurisdiction does not include hearing witnesses or receiving new evidence.—it must accept the facts as determined by the trial court and limit its review to the lower court’s theory of the applicable law.

Limited Jurisdiction Courts

In most large urban states and many smaller states, there are four and sometimes five levels of courts. The lowest level is that of the limited jurisdiction courts. These are usually county or municipal courts with original jurisdiction to hear minor criminal cases (petty assaults, traffic offenses, and breach of peace, among others) and civil cases involving monetary amounts up to a fixed ceiling (no more than $10,000 in most states and far less in many states). Most disputes that wind up in court are handled in the 18,000-plus limited jurisdiction courts, which are estimated to hear more than 80 percent of all cases.

One familiar limited jurisdiction court is the small claims court, with jurisdiction to hear civil cases involving claims for amounts ranging between $1,000 and $5,000 in about half the states and for considerably less in the other states ($500 to $1,000). The advantage of the small claims court is that its procedures are informal, it is often located in a neighborhood outside the business district, it is usually open after business hours, and it is speedy. Lawyers are not necessary to present the case and in some states are not allowed to appear in court.

General Jurisdiction Courts

All other civil and criminal cases are heard in the general trial courts, or courts of general jurisdiction. These go by a variety of names: superior, circuit, district, or common pleas court (New York calls its general trial court the supreme court). These are the courts in which people seek redress for incidents such as automobile accidents and injuries, or breaches of contract. These state courts also prosecute those accused of murder, rape, robbery, and other serious crimes. The fact finder in these general jurisdiction courts is not a judge, as in the lower courts, but a jury of citizens.

Although courts of general jurisdiction can hear all types of cases, in most states more than half involve family matters (divorce, child custody disputes, and the like). A third were commercial cases, and slightly over 10 percent were devoted to car accident cases and other torts (as discussed in Chapter 7 "Introduction to Tort Law").

Most states have specialized courts that hear only a certain type of case, such as landlord-tenant disputes or probate of wills. Decisions by judges in specialized courts are usually final, although any party dissatisfied with the outcome may be able to get a new trial in a court of general jurisdiction. Because there has been one trial already, this is known as a trial de novo. It is not an appeal, since the case essentially starts over.

Appellate Courts

The losing party in a general jurisdiction court can almost always appeal to either one or two higher courts. These intermediate appellate courts—usually called courts of appeal—have been established in forty states. They do not retry the evidence, but rather determine whether the trial was conducted in a procedurally correct manner and whether the appropriate law was applied. For example, the appellant (the losing party who appeals) might complain that the judge wrongly instructed the jury on the meaning of the law, or improperly allowed testimony of a particular witness, or misconstrued the law in question. The appellee (who won in the lower court) will ask that the appellant be denied—usually this means that the appellee wants the lower-court judgment affirmed. The appellate court has quite a few choices: it can affirm, modify, reverse, or reverse and remand the lower court (return the case to the lower court for retrial).

The last type of appeal within the state courts system is to the highest court, the state supreme court, which is composed of a single panel of between five and nine judges and is usually located in the state capital. (The intermediate appellate courts are usually composed of panels of three judges and are situated in various locations around the state.) In a few states, the highest court goes by a different name: in New York, it is known as the court of appeals. In certain cases, appellants to the highest court in a state have the right to have their appeals heard, but more often the supreme court selects the cases it wishes to hear. For most litigants, the ruling of the state supreme court is final. In a relatively small class of cases—those in which federal constitutional claims are made—appeal to the US Supreme Court to issue a writ of certiorariThe writ issued by a higher court that grants review of the decision of a lower court. In the United States, the Supreme Court’s writ of certiorari is highly sought by those who would have the court review a state supreme court judgment or that of a federal circuit court of appeals. Most of the cases heard by the Supreme Court are through the granting of a petitioner’s appeal to have the writ issued. remains a possibility.

The Federal Court System

District Courts

The federal judicial system is uniform throughout the United States and consists of three levels. At the first level are the federal district courts, which are the trial courts in the federal system. Every state has one or more federal districts; the less populous states have one, and the more populous states (California, Texas, and New York) have four. The federal court with the heaviest commercial docket is the US District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan). There are forty-four district judges and fifteen magistrates in this district. The district judges throughout the United States commonly preside over all federal trials, both criminal and civil.

Courts of Appeal

Cases from the district courts can then be appealed to the circuit courts of appeal, of which there are thirteen (Figure 3.1 "The Federal Judicial Circuits"). Each circuit oversees the work of the district courts in several states. For example, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit hears appeals from district courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit hears appeals from district courts in California, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit hears appeals from the district court in Washington, DC, as well as from numerous federal administrative agencies (see Chapter 5 "Administrative Law"). The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, also located in Washington, hears appeals in patent and customs cases. Appeals are usually heard by three-judge panels, but sometimes there will be a rehearing at the court of appeals level, in which case all judges sit to hear the case “en banc.”

There are also several specialized courts in the federal judicial system. These include the US Tax Court, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals, and the Court of Claims.

United States Supreme Court

Overseeing all federal courts is the US Supreme Court, in Washington, DC. It consists of nine justices—the chief justice and eight associate justices. (This number is not constitutionally required; Congress can establish any number. It has been set at nine since after the Civil War.) The Supreme Court has selective control over most of its docket. By law, the cases it hears represent only a tiny fraction of the cases that are submitted. In 2008, the Supreme Court had numerous petitions (over 7,000, not including thousands of petitions from prisoners) but heard arguments in only 87 cases. The Supreme Court does not sit in panels. All the justices hear and consider each case together, unless a justice has a conflict of interest and must withdraw from hearing the case.

Figure 3.1 The Federal Judicial Circuits

Federal judges—including Supreme Court justices—are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. Unlike state judges, who are usually elected and preside for a fixed term of years, federal judges sit for life unless they voluntarily retire or are impeached.

Key Takeaway

Trial courts and appellate courts have different functions. State trial courts sometimes hear cases with federal law issues, and federal courts sometimes hear cases with state law issues. Within both state and federal court systems, it is useful to know the different kinds of courts and what cases they can decide.


  1. Why all of this complexity? Why don’t state courts hear only claims based on state law, and federal courts only federal-law-based claims?
  2. Why would a plaintiff in Iowa with a case against a New Jersey defendant prefer to have the case heard in Iowa?
  3. James, a New Jersey resident, is sued by Jonah, an Iowa resident. After a trial in which James appears and vigorously defends himself, the Iowa state court awards Jonah $136,750 dollars in damages for his tort claim. In trying to collect from James in New Jersey, Jonah must have the New Jersey court certify the Iowa judgment. Why, ordinarily, must the New Jersey court do so?

3.2 The Problem of Jurisdiction

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the concept of subject matter jurisdiction and distinguish it from personal jurisdiction.
  2. Understand how and where the US Constitution provides a set of instructions as to what federal courts are empowered by law to do.
  3. Know which kinds of cases must be heard in federal courts only.
  4. Explain diversity of citizenship jurisdiction and be able to decide whether a case is eligible for diversity jurisdiction in the federal courts.

Jurisdiction is an essential concept in understanding courts and the legal system. Jurisdiction is a combination of two Latin words: juris (law) and diction (to speak). Which court has the power “to speak the law” is the basic question of jurisdiction.

There are two questions about jurisdiction in each case that must be answered before a judge will hear a case: the question of subject matter jurisdictionLegal authority to hear and decide a case or controversy. and the question of personal jurisdiction. We will consider the question of subject matter jurisdiction first, because judges do; if they determine, on the basis of the initial documents in the case (the “pleadings”), that they have no power to hear and decide that kind of case, they will dismiss it.

The Federal-State Balance: Federalism

State courts have their origins in colonial era courts. After the American Revolution, state courts functioned (with some differences) much like they did in colonial times. The big difference after 1789 was that state courts coexisted with federal courts. FederalismThe idea, originating with the Constitution’s Founding Fathers, that the United States legal and political system would be one of governance shared between the states and the federal government. was the system devised by the nation’s founders in which power is shared between states and the federal government. This sharing requires a division of labor between the states and the federal government. It is Article III of the US Constitution that spells out the respective spheres of authority (jurisdiction) between state and federal courts.

Take a close look at Article III of the Constitution. (You can find a printable copy of the Constitution at Article III makes clear that federal courts are courts of limited power or jurisdiction. Notice that the only kinds of cases federal courts are authorized to deal with have strong federal connections. For example, federal courts have jurisdiction when a federal law is being used by the plaintiff or prosecutor (a “federal question” case) or the case arises “in admiralty” (meaning that the problem arose not on land but on sea, beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any state, or in navigable waters within the United States). Implied in this list is the clear notion that states would continue to have their own laws, interpreted by their own courts, and that federal courts were needed only where the issues raised by the parties had a clear federal connection. The exception to this is diversity jurisdiction, discussed later.

The Constitution was constructed with the idea that state courts would continue to deal with basic kinds of claims such as tort, contract, or property claims. Since states sanction marriages and divorce, state courts would deal with “domestic” (family) issues. Since states deal with birth and death records, it stands to reason that paternity suits, probate disputes, and the like usually wind up in state courts. You wouldn’t go to the federal building or courthouse to get a marriage license, ask for a divorce, or probate a will: these matters have traditionally been dealt with by the states (and the thirteen original colonies before them). Matters that historically get raised and settled in state court under state law include not only domestic and probate matters but also law relating to corporations, partnerships, agency, contracts, property, torts, and commercial dealings generally. You cannot get married or divorced in federal court, because federal courts have no jurisdiction over matters that are historically (and are still) exclusively within the domain of state law.

In terms of subject matter jurisdiction, then, state courts will typically deal with the kinds of disputes just cited. Thus if you are Michigan resident and have an auto accident in Toledo with an Ohio resident and you each blame each other for the accident, the state courts would ordinarily resolve the matter if the dispute cannot otherwise be settled. Why state courts? Because when you blame one another and allege that it’s the other person’s fault, you have the beginnings of a tort case, with negligence as a primary element of the claim, and state courts have routinely dealt with this kind of claim, from British colonial times through Independence and to the present. (See also Chapter 7 "Introduction to Tort Law" of this text.) People have had a need to resolve this kind of dispute long before our federal courts were created, and you can tell from Article III that the founders did not specify that tort or negligence claims should be handled by the federal courts. Again, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, limited to the kinds of cases specified in Article III. If the case before the federal court does not fall within one of those categories, the federal court cannot constitutionally hear the case because it does not have subject matter jurisdiction.

Always remember: a court must have subject matter jurisdiction to hear and decide a case. Without it, a court cannot address the merits of the controversy or even take the next jurisdictional step of figuring out which of the defendants can be sued in that court. The question of which defendants are appropriately before the court is a question of personal jurisdictionEach court must have subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over at least one named defendant. If the defendant is a nonresident where the lawsuit is filed, there may be constitutional issues of personal jurisdiction arising from the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. One state should not claim personal jurisdiction over a nonresident unless various tests are met, such as minimum contacts and the “purposeful availment” test..

Because there are two court systems, it is important for a plaintiff to file in the right court to begin with. The right court is the one that has subject matter jurisdiction over the case—that is, the power to hear and decide the kind of case that is filed. Not only is it a waste of time to file in the wrong court system and be dismissed, but if the dismissal comes after the filing period imposed by the applicable statute of limitationsEach state and the federal government has legislated certain time periods beyond which plaintiffs are not allowed to file civil lawsuits. (There are some statutes of limitations for some kinds of criminal offenses, as well.), it will be too late to refile in the correct court system. Such cases will be routinely dismissed, regardless of how deserving the plaintiff might be in his quest for justice. (The plaintiff’s only remedy at that point would be to sue his lawyer for negligence for failing to mind the clock and get to the right court in time!)

Exclusive Jurisdiction in Federal Courts

With two court systems, a plaintiff (or the plaintiff’s attorney, most likely) must decide whether to file a case in the state court system or the federal court system. Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over certain kinds of cases. The reason for this comes directly from the Constitution. Article III of the US Constitution provides the following:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

By excluding diversity cases, we can assemble a list of the kinds of cases that can only be heard in federal courts. The list looks like this:

  1. Suits between states. Cases in which two or more states are a party.
  2. Cases involving ambassadors and other high-ranking public figures. Cases arising between foreign ambassadors and other high-ranking public officials.
  3. Federal crimes. Crimes defined by or mentioned in the US Constitution or those defined or punished by federal statute. Such crimes include treason against the United States, piracy, counterfeiting, crimes against the law of nations, and crimes relating to the federal government’s authority to regulate interstate commerce. However, most crimes are state matters.
  4. Bankruptcy. The statutory procedure, usually triggered by insolvency, by which a person is relieved of most debts and undergoes a judicially supervised reorganization or liquidation for the benefit of the person’s creditors.
  5. Patent, copyright, and trademark cases

    1. Patent. The exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a specified period (usually seventeen years), granted by the federal government to the inventor if the device or process is novel, useful, and nonobvious.
    2. Copyright. The body of law relating to a property right in an original work of authorship (such as a literary, musical, artistic, photographic, or film work) fixed in any tangible medium of expression, giving the holder the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, distribute, perform, and display the work.
    3. Trademark. A word, phrase, logo, or other graphic symbol used by a manufacturer or seller to distinguish its product or products from those of others.
  6. Admiralty. The system of laws that has grown out of the practice of admiralty courts: courts that exercise jurisdiction over all maritime contracts, torts, injuries, and offenses.
  7. Antitrust. Federal laws designed to protect trade and commerce from restraining monopolies, price fixing, and price discrimination.
  8. Securities and banking regulation. The body of law protecting the public by regulating the registration, offering, and trading of securities and the regulation of banking practices.
  9. Other cases specified by federal statute. Any other cases specified by a federal statute where Congress declares that federal courts will have exclusive jurisdiction.

Concurrent Jurisdiction

When a plaintiff takes a case to state court, it will be because state courts typically hear that kind of case (i.e., there is subject matter jurisdiction). If the plaintiff’s main cause of action comes from a certain state’s constitution, statutes, or court decisions, the state courts have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. If the plaintiff’s main cause of action is based on federal law (e.g., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), the federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over the case. But federal courts will also have subject matter jurisdiction over certain cases that have only a state-based cause of action; those cases are ones in which the plaintiff(s) and the defendant(s) are from different states and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000. State courts can have subject matter jurisdiction over certain cases that have only a federal-based cause of action. The Supreme Court has now made clear that state courts have concurrent jurisdictionWhen both state and federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction of a case, there is concurrent jurisdiction. Only one court will hear the case between the parties and will hear all causes of action, whether based on state or federal law. of any federal cause of action unless Congress has given exclusive jurisdiction to federal courts.

In short, a case with a federal question can be often be heard in either state or federal court, and a case that has parties with a diversity of citizenship can be heard in state courts or in federal courts where the tests of complete diversity and amount in controversy are met. (See Note 3.18 "Summary of Rules on Subject Matter Jurisdiction".)

Whether a case will be heard in a state court or moved to a federal court will depend on the parties. If a plaintiff files a case in state trial court where concurrent jurisdiction applies, a defendant may (or may not) ask that the case be removed to federal district court.

Summary of Rules on Subject Matter Jurisdiction

  1. A court must always have subject matter jurisdiction, and personal jurisdiction over at least one defendant, to hear and decide a case.
  2. A state court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case that is not required to be brought in a federal court.

    Some cases can only be brought in federal court, such as bankruptcy cases, cases involving federal crimes, patent cases, and Internal Revenue Service tax court claims. The list of cases for exclusive federal jurisdiction is fairly short. That means that almost any state court will have subject matter jurisdiction over almost any kind of case. If it’s a case based on state law, a state court will always have subject matter jurisdiction.

  3. A federal court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case that is either based on a federal law (statute, case, or US Constitution)


    A federal court will have subject matter jurisdiction over any case based on state law where the parties are (1) from different states and (2) the amount in controversy is at least $75,000.

    (1) The different states requirement means that no plaintiff can have permanent residence in a state where any defendant has permanent residence—there must be complete diversity of citizenship as between all plaintiffs and defendants.

    (2) The amount in controversy requirement means that a good-faith estimate of the amount the plaintiff may recover is at least $75,000.

    NOTE: For purposes of permanent residence, a corporation is considered a resident where it is incorporated AND where it has a principal place of business.

  4. In diversity cases, the following rules apply.

    (1) Federal civil procedure rules apply to how the case is conducted before and during trial and any appeals, but

    (2) State law will be used as the basis for a determination of legal rights and responsibilities.

    (a) This “choice of law” process is interesting but complicated. Basically, each state has its own set of judicial decisions that resolve conflict of laws. For example, just because A sues B in a Texas court, the Texas court will not necessarily apply Texas law. Anna and Bobby collide and suffer serious physical injuries while driving their cars in Roswell, New Mexico. Both live in Austin, and Bobby files a lawsuit in Austin. The court there could hear it (having subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over Bobby) but would apply New Mexico law, which governs motor vehicle laws and accidents in New Mexico. Why would the Texas judge do that?

    (b) The Texas judge knows that which state’s law is chosen to apply to the case can make a decisive difference in the case, as different states have different substantive law standards. For example, in a breach of contract case, one state’s version of the Uniform Commercial Code may be different from another’s, and which one the court decides to apply is often exceedingly good for one side and dismal for the other. In Anna v. Bobby, if Texas has one kind of comparative negligence statute and New Mexico has a different kind of comparative negligence statute, who wins or loses, or how much is awarded, could well depend on which law applies. Because both were under the jurisdiction of New Mexico’s laws at the time, it makes sense to apply New Mexico law.

    (3) Why do some nonresident defendants prefer to be in federal court?

    (a) In the state court, the judge is elected, and the jury may be familiar with or sympathetic to the “local” plaintiff.

    (b) The federal court provides a more neutral forum, with an appointed, life-tenured judge and a wider pool of potential jurors (drawn from a wider geographical area).

    (4) If a defendant does not want to be in state court and there is diversity, what is to be done?

    (a) Make a motion for removal to the federal court.

    (b) The federal court will not want to add to its caseload, or docket, but must take the case unless there is not complete diversity of citizenship or the amount in controversy is less than $75,000.

To better understand subject matter jurisdiction in action, let’s take an example. Wile E. Coyote wants a federal judge to hear his products-liability action against Acme, Inc., even though the action is based on state law. Mr. Coyote’s attorney wants to “make a federal case” out of it, thinking that the jurors in the federal district court’s jury pool will understand the case better and be more likely to deliver a “high value” verdict for Mr. Coyote. Mr. Coyote resides in Arizona, and Acme is incorporated in the state of Delaware and has its principal place of business in Chicago, Illinois. The federal court in Arizona can hear and decide Mr. Coyote’s case (i.e., it has subject matter jurisdiction over the case) because of diversity of citizenship. If Mr. Coyote was injured by one of Acme’s defective products while chasing a roadrunner in Arizona, the federal district court judge would hear his action—using federal procedural law—and decide the case based on the substantive law of Arizona on product liability.

But now change the facts only slightly: Acme is incorporated in Delaware but has its principal place of business in Phoenix, Arizona. Unless Mr. Coyote has a federal law he is using as a basis for his claims against Acme, his attempt to get a federal court to hear and decide the case will fail. It will fail because there is not complete diversity of citizenship between the plaintiff and the defendant.

Robinson v. Audi

Now consider Mr. and Mrs. Robinson and their products-liability claim against Seaway Volkswagen and the other three defendants. There is no federal products-liability law that could be used as a cause of action. They are most likely suing the defendants using products-liability law based on common-law negligence or common-law strict liability law, as found in state court cases. They were not yet Arizona residents at the time of the accident, and their accident does not establish them as Oklahoma residents, either. They bought the vehicle in New York from a New York–based retailer. None of the other defendants is from Oklahoma.

They file in an Oklahoma state court, but how will they (their attorney or the court) know if the state court has subject matter jurisdiction? Unless the case is required to be in a federal court (i.e., unless the federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over this kind of case), any state court system will have subject matter jurisdiction, including Oklahoma’s state court system. But if their claim is for a significant amount of money, they cannot file in small claims court, probate court, or any court in Oklahoma that does not have statutory jurisdiction over their claim. They will need to file in a court of general jurisdiction. In short, even filing in the right court system (state versus federal), the plaintiff must be careful to find the court that has subject matter jurisdiction.

If they wish to go to federal court, can they? There is no federal question presented here (the claim is based on state common law), and the United States is not a party, so the only basis for federal court jurisdiction would be diversity jurisdiction. If enough time has elapsed since the accident and they have established themselves as Arizona residents, they could sue in federal court in Oklahoma (or elsewhere), but only if none of the defendants—the retailer, the regional Volkswagen company, Volkswagen of North America, or Audi (in Germany) are incorporated in or have a principal place of business in Arizona. The federal judge would decide the case using federal civil procedure but would have to make the appropriate choice of state law. In this case, the choice of conflicting laws would most likely be Oklahoma, where the accident happened, or New York, where the defective product was sold.

Table 3.1 Sample Conflict-of-Law Principles

Substantive Law Issue Law to be Applied
Liability for injury caused by tortious conduct State in which the injury was inflicted
Real property State where the property is located
Personal Property: inheritance Domicile of deceased (not location of property)
Contract: validity State in which contract was made
Contract: breach State in which contract was to be performed*
*Or, in many states, the state with the most significant contacts with the contractual activities
Note: Choice-of-law clauses in a contract will ordinarily be honored by judges in state and federal courts.

Legal Procedure, Including Due Process and Personal Jurisdiction

In this section, we consider how lawsuits are begun and how the court knows that it has both subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction over at least one of the named defendants.

The courts are not the only institutions that can resolve disputes. In Section 3.8 "Alternative Means of Resolving Disputes", we will discuss other dispute-resolution forums, such as arbitration and mediation. For now, let us consider how courts make decisions in civil disputes. Judicial decision making in the context of litigation (civil lawsuits) is a distinctive form of dispute resolution.

First, to get the attention of a court, the plaintiff must make a claim based on existing laws. Second, courts do not reach out for cases. Cases are brought to them, usually when an attorney files a case with the right court in the right way, following the various laws that govern all civil procedures in a state or in the federal system. (Most US states’ procedural laws are similar to the federal procedural code.)

Once at the court, the case will proceed through various motions (motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, for example, or insufficient service of process), the proofs (submission of evidence), and the arguments (debate about the meaning of the evidence and the law) of contesting parties.

This is at the heart of the adversary system, in which those who oppose each other may attack the other’s case through proofs and cross-examination. Every person in the United States who wishes to take a case to court is entitled to hire a lawyer. The lawyer works for his client, not the court, and serves him as an advocate, or supporter. The client’s goal is to persuade the court of the accuracy and justness of his position. The lawyer’s duty is to shape the evidence and the argument—the line of reasoning about the evidence—to advance his client’s cause and persuade the court of its rightness. The lawyer for the opposing party will be doing the same thing, of course, for her client. The judge (or, if one is sitting, the jury) must sort out the facts and reach a decision from this cross-fire of evidence and argument.

The method of adjudication—the act of making an order or judgment—has several important features. First, it focuses the conflicting issues. Other, secondary concerns are minimized or excluded altogether. Relevance is a key concept in any trial. The judge is required to decide the questions presented at the trial, not to talk about related matters. Second, adjudication requires that the judge’s decision be reasoned, and that is why judges write opinions explaining their decisions (an opinion may be omitted when the verdict comes from a jury). Third, the judge’s decision must not only be reasoned but also be responsive to the case presented: the judge is not free to say that the case is unimportant and that he therefore will ignore it. Unlike other branches of government that are free to ignore problems pressing upon them, judges must decide cases. (For example, a legislature need not enact a law, no matter how many people petition it to do so.) Fourth, the court must respond in a certain way. The judge must pay attention to the parties’ arguments and his decision must result from their proofs and arguments. Evidence that is not presented and legal arguments that are not made cannot be the basis for what the judge decides. Also, judges are bound by standards of weighing evidence: the burden of proof in a civil case is generally a “preponderance of the evidence.”

In all cases, the plaintiff—the party making a claim and initiating the lawsuit (in a criminal case the plaintiff is the prosecution)—has the burden of proving his case. If he fails to prove it, the defendant—the party being sued or prosecuted—will win.

Criminal prosecutions carry the most rigorous burden of proof: the government must prove its case against the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. That is, even if it seems very likely that the defendant committed the crime, as long as there remains some reasonable doubt—perhaps he was not clearly identified as the culprit, perhaps he has an alibi that could be legitimate—the jury must vote to acquit rather than convict.

By contrast, the burden of proof in ordinary civil cases—those dealing with contracts, personal injuries, and most of the cases in this book—is a preponderance of the evidence, which means that the plaintiff’s evidence must outweigh whatever evidence the defendant can muster that casts doubts on the plaintiff’s claim. This is not merely a matter of counting the number of witnesses or of the length of time that they talk: the judge in a trial without a jury (a bench trial), or the jury where one is impaneled, must apply the preponderance of evidence test by determining which side has the greater weight of credible, relevant evidence.

Adjudication and the adversary system imply certain other characteristics of courts. Judges must be impartial; those with a personal interest in a matter must refuse to hear it. The ruling of a court, after all appeals are exhausted, is final. This principle is known as res judicata“The matter has been adjudicated.” The same case or controversy cannot be heard and concluded in one court and relitigated in another. The same parties may have different issues and disputes, but a final judgment in a court that has jurisdiction over the case or controversy forever settles the matter. (Latin for “the thing is decided”), and it means that the same parties may not take up the same dispute in another court at another time. Finally, a court must proceed according to a public set of formal procedural rules; a judge cannot make up the rules as he goes along. To these rules we now turn.

How a Case Proceeds

Complaint and Summons

Beginning a lawsuit is simple and is spelled out in the rules of procedure by which each court system operates. In the federal system, the plaintiff begins a lawsuit by filing a complaint—a document clearly explaining the grounds for suit—with the clerk of the court. The court’s agent (usually a sheriff, for state trial courts, or a US deputy marshal, in federal district courts) will then serve the defendant with the complaint and a summons. The summons is a court document stating the name of the plaintiff and his attorney and directing the defendant to respond to the complaint within a fixed time period.

The timing of the filing can be important. Almost every possible legal complaint is governed by a federal or state statute of limitations, which requires a lawsuit to be filed within a certain period of time. For example, in many states a lawsuit for injuries resulting from an automobile accident must be filed within two years of the accident or the plaintiff forfeits his right to proceed. As noted earlier, making a correct initial filing in a court that has subject matter jurisdiction is critical to avoiding statute of limitations problems.

Jurisdiction and Venue

The place of filing is equally important, and there are two issues regarding location. The first is subject matter jurisdiction, as already noted. A claim for breach of contract, in which the amount at stake is $1 million, cannot be brought in a local county court with jurisdiction to hear cases involving sums of up to only $1,000. Likewise, a claim for copyright violation cannot be brought in a state superior court, since federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over copyright cases.

The second consideration is venue—the proper geographic location of the court. For example, every county in a state might have a superior court, but the plaintiff is not free to pick any county. Again, a statute will spell out to which court the plaintiff must go (e.g., the county in which the plaintiff resides or the county in which the defendant resides or maintains an office).

Service of Process and Personal Jurisdiction

The defendant must be “served”—that is, must receive notice that he has been sued. Service can be done by physically presenting the defendant with a copy of the summons and complaint. But sometimes the defendant is difficult to find (or deliberately avoids the marshal or other process server). The rules spell out a variety of ways by which individuals and corporations can be served. These include using US Postal Service certified mail or serving someone already designated to receive service of process. A corporation or partnership, for example, is often required by state law to designate a “registered agent” for purposes of getting public notices or receiving a summons and complaint.

One of the most troublesome problems is service on an out-of-state defendant. The personal jurisdiction of a state court over persons is clear for those defendants found within the state. If the plaintiff claims that an out-of-state defendant injured him in some way, must the plaintiff go to the defendant’s home state to serve him? Unless the defendant had some significant contact with the plaintiff’s state, the plaintiff may indeed have to. For instance, suppose a traveler from Maine stopped at a roadside diner in Montana and ordered a slice of homemade pie that was tainted and caused him to be sick. The traveler may not simply return home and mail the diner a notice that he is suing it in a Maine court. But if out-of-state defendants have some contact with the plaintiff’s state of residence, there might be grounds to bring them within the jurisdiction of the plaintiff’s state courts. In Burger King v. Rudzewicz, Section 3.9 "Cases", the federal court in Florida had to consider whether it was constitutionally permissible to exercise personal jurisdiction over a Michigan franchisee.

Again, recall that even if a court has subject matter jurisdiction, it must also have personal jurisdiction over each defendant against whom an enforceable judgment can be made. Often this is not a problem; you might be suing a person who lives in your state or regularly does business in your state. Or a nonresident may answer your complaint without objecting to the court’s “in personam” (personal) jurisdiction. But many defendants who do not reside in the state where the lawsuit is filed would rather not be put to the inconvenience of contesting a lawsuit in a distant forum. Fairness—and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—dictates that nonresidents should not be required to defend lawsuits far from their home base, especially where there is little or no contact or connection between the nonresident and the state where a lawsuit is brought.

Summary of Rules on Personal Jurisdiction

  1. Once a court determines that it has subject matter jurisdiction, it must find at least one defendant over which it is “fair” (i.e., in accord with due process) to exercise personal jurisdiction.
  2. If a plaintiff sues five defendants and the court has personal jurisdiction over just one, the case can be heard, but the court cannot make a judgment against the other four.

    1. But if the plaintiff loses against defendant 1, he can go elsewhere (to another state or states) and sue defendants 2, 3, 4, or 5.
    2. The court’s decision in the first lawsuit (against defendant 1) does not determine the liability of the nonparticipating defendants.

    This involves the principle of res judicata, which means that you can’t bring the same action against the same person (or entity) twice. It’s like the civil side of double jeopardy. Res means “thing,” and judicata means “adjudicated.” Thus the “thing” has been “adjudicated” and should not be judged again. But, as to nonparticipating parties, it is not over. If you have a different case against the same defendant—one that arises out of a completely different situation—that case is not barred by res judicata.

  3. Service of process is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for getting personal jurisdiction over a particular defendant (see rule 4).

    1. In order to get a judgment in a civil action, the plaintiff must serve a copy of the complaint and a summons on the defendant.
    2. There are many ways to do this.

      • The process server personally serves a complaint on the defendant.
      • The process server leaves a copy of the summons and complaint at the residence of the defendant, in the hands of a competent person.
      • The process server sends the summons and complaint by certified mail, return receipt requested.
      • The process server, if all other means are not possible, notifies the defendant by publication in a newspaper having a minimum number of readers (as may be specified by law).
  4. In addition to successfully serving the defendant with process, a plaintiff must convince the court that exercising personal jurisdiction over the defendant is consistent with due process and any statutes in that state that prescribe the jurisdictional reach of that state (the so-called long-arm statutes). The Supreme Court has long recognized various bases for judging whether such process is fair.

    1. Consent. The defendant agrees to the court’s jurisdiction by coming to court, answering the complaint, and having the matter litigated there.
    2. Domicile. The defendant is a permanent resident of that state.
    3. Event. The defendant did something in that state, related to the lawsuit, that makes it fair for the state to say, “Come back and defend!”
    4. Service of process within the state will effectively provide personal jurisdiction over the nonresident.

Again, let’s consider Mrs. Robinson and her children in the Audi accident. She could file a lawsuit anywhere in the country. She could file a lawsuit in Arizona after she establishes residency there. But while the Arizona court would have subject matter jurisdiction over any products-liability claim (or any claim that was not required to be heard in a federal court), the Arizona court would face an issue of “in personam jurisdiction,” or personal jurisdiction: under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, each state must extend due process to citizens of all of the other states. Because fairness is essential to due process, the court must consider whether it is fair to require an out-of-state defendant to appear and defend against a lawsuit that could result in a judgment against that defendant.

Almost every state in the United States has a statute regarding personal jurisdiction, instructing judges when it is permissible to assert personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state resident. These are called long-arm statutes. But no state can reach out beyond the limits of what is constitutionally permissible under the Fourteenth Amendment, which binds the states with its proviso to guarantee the due process rights of the citizens of every state in the union. The “minimum contacts” test in Burger King v. Rudzewicz (Section 3.9 "Cases") tries to make the fairness mandate of the due process clause more specific. So do other tests articulated in the case (such as “does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice”). These tests are posed by the Supreme Court and heeded by all lower courts in order to honor the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantees. These tests are in addition to any state long-arm statute’s instructions to courts regarding the assertion of personal jurisdiction over nonresidents.

Choice of Law and Choice of Forum Clauses

In a series of cases, the Supreme Court has made clear that it will honor contractual choices of parties in a lawsuit. Suppose the parties to a contract wind up in court arguing over the application of the contract’s terms. If the parties are from two different states, the judge may have difficulty determining which law to apply (see Table 3.1 "Sample Conflict-of-Law Principles"). But if the contract says that a particular state’s law will be applied if there is a dispute, then ordinarily the judge will apply that state’s law as a rule of decision in the case. For example, Kumar Patel (a Missouri resident) opens a brokerage account with Goldman, Sachs and Co., and the contractual agreement calls for “any disputes arising under this agreement” to be determined “according to the laws of the state of New York.” When Kumar claims in a Missouri court that his broker is “churning” his account, and, on the other hand, Goldman, Sachs claims that Kumar has failed to meet his margin call and owes $38,568.25 (plus interest and attorney’s fees), the judge in Missouri will apply New York law based on the contract between Kumar and Goldman, Sachs.

Ordinarily, a choice-of-law clause will be accompanied by a choice-of-forum clause. In a choice-of-forum clause, the parties in the contract specify which court they will go to in the event of a dispute arising under the terms of contract. For example, Harold (a resident of Virginia) rents a car from Alamo at the Denver International Airport. He does not look at the fine print on the contract. He also waives all collision and other insurance that Alamo offers at the time of his rental. While driving back from Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he has an accident in Idaho Springs, Colorado. His rented Nissan Altima is badly damaged. On returning to Virginia, he would like to settle up with Alamo, but his insurance company and Alamo cannot come to terms. He realizes, however, that he has agreed to hear the dispute with Alamo in a specific court in San Antonio, Texas. In the absence of fraud or bad faith, any court in the United States is likely to uphold the choice-of-form clause and require Harold (or his insurance company) to litigate in San Antonio, Texas.

Key Takeaway

There are two court systems in the United States. It is important to know which system—the state court system or the federal court system—has the power to hear and decide a particular case. Once that is established, the Constitution compels an inquiry to make sure that no court extends its reach unfairly to out-of-state residents. The question of personal jurisdiction is a question of fairness and due process to nonresidents.


  1. The Constitution specifies that federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over admiralty claims. Mr. and Mrs. Shute have a claim against Carnival Cruise lines for the negligence of the cruise line. Mrs. Shute sustained injuries as a result of the company’s negligence. Mr. and Mrs. Shute live in the state of Washington. Can they bring their claim in state court? Must they bring their claim in federal court?
  2. Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In Title VII, employers are required not to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. In passing Title VII, Congress did not require plaintiffs to file only in federal courts. That is, Congress made no statement in Title VII that federal courts had “exclusive jurisdiction” over Title VII claims. Mrs. Harris wishes to sue Forklift Systems, Inc. of Nashville, Tennessee, for sexual harassment under Title VII. She has gone through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission process and has a right-to-sue letter, which is required before a Title VII action can be brought to court. Can she file a complaint that will be heard by a state court?
  3. Mrs. Harris fails to go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to get her right-to-sue letter against Forklift Systems, Inc. She therefore does not have a viable Title VII cause of action against Forklift. She does, however, have her rights under Tennessee’s equal employment statute and various court decisions from Tennessee courts regarding sexual harassment. Forklift is incorporated in Tennessee and has its principal place of business in Nashville. Mrs. Harris is also a citizen of Tennessee. Explain why, if she brings her employment discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit in a federal court, her lawsuit will be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
  4. Suppose Mr. and Mrs. Robinson find in the original paperwork with Seaway Volkswagen that there is a contractual agreement with a provision that says “all disputes arising between buyer and Seaway Volkswagen will be litigated, if at all, in the county courts of Westchester County, New York.” Will the Oklahoma court take personal jurisdiction over Seaway Volkswagen, or will it require the Robinsons to litigate their claim in New York?

3.3 Motions and Discovery

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how a lawsuit can be dismissed prior to any trial.
  2. Understand the basic principles and practices of discovery before a trial.

The early phases of a civil action are characterized by many different kinds of motions and a complex process of mutual fact-finding between the parties that is known as discovery. A lawsuit will start with the pleadingsThe initial documents filed by parties in a lawsuit. (complaint and answer in every case, and in some cases a counterclaim by the defendant against the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s reply to the defendant’s counterclaim). After the pleadings, the parties may make various motionsWritten requests made to a presiding judge. These include motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, motions to direct an opposing party to divulge more in discovery, motions for a directed verdict, motions for judgment n.o.v., and many others., which are requests to the judge. Motions in the early stages of a lawsuit usually aim to dismiss the lawsuit, to have it moved to another venue, or to compel the other party to act in certain ways during the discovery process.

Initial Pleadings, and Motions to Dismiss

The first papers filed in a lawsuit are called the pleadings. These include the plaintiff’s complaint and then (usually after thirty or more days) the answer or response from the defendant. The answer may be coupled with a counterclaim against the plaintiff. (In effect, the defendant becomes the plaintiff for the claims she has against the original plaintiff.) The plaintiff may reply to any counterclaim by the defendant.

State and federal rules of civil procedure require that the complaint must state the nature of the plaintiff’s claim, the jurisdiction of the court, and the nature of the relief that is being asked for (usually an award of money, but sometimes an injunction, or a declaration of legal rights). In an answer, the defendant will often deny all the allegations of the complaint or will admit to certain of its allegations and deny others.

A complaint and subsequent pleadings are usually quite general and give little detail. Cases can be decided on the pleadings alone in the following situations: (1) If the defendant fails to answer the complaint, the court can enter a default judgment, awarding the plaintiff what he seeks. (2) The defendant can move to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff failed to “state a claim on which relief can be granted,” or on the basis that there is no subject matter jurisdiction for the court chosen by the plaintiff, or on the basis that there is no personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The defendant is saying, in effect, that even if all the plaintiff’s allegations are true, they do not amount to a legal claim that can be heard by the court. For example, a claim that the defendant induced a woman to stop dating the plaintiff (a so-called alienation of affections cause of action) is no longer actionable in US state courts, and any court will dismiss the complaint without any further proceedings. (This type of dismissal is occasionally still called a demurrer.)

A third kind of dismissal can take place on a motion for summary judgmentAs in a directed verdict, when a judge grants summary judgment, she has concluded that there are no matters of law or fact on which reasonable people would disagree. Summary judgment is a final order, and it is appealable.. If there is no triable question of fact or law, there is no reason to have a trial. For example, the plaintiff sues on a promissory note and, at deposition (an oral examination under oath), the defendant admits having made no payment on the note and offers no excuse that would be recognizable as a reason not to pay. There is no reason to have a trial, and the court should grant summary judgment.


If there is a factual dispute, the case will usually involve some degree of discovery, where each party tries to get as much information out of the other party as the rules allow. Until the 1940s, when discovery became part of civil procedure rules, a lawsuit was frequently a game in which each party hid as much information as possible and tried to surprise the other party in court.

Beginning with a change in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure adopted by the Supreme Court in 1938 and subsequently followed by many of the states, the parties are entitled to learn the facts of the case before trial. The basic idea is to help the parties determine what the evidence might be, who the potential witnesses are, and what specific issues are relevant. Discovery can proceed by several methods. A party may serve an interrogatory on his adversary—a written request for answers to specific questions. Or a party may depose the other party or a witness. A deposition is a live question-and-answer session at which the witness answers questions put to him by one of the parties’ lawyers. His answers are recorded verbatim and may be used at trial. Each party is also entitled to inspect books, documents, records, and other physical items in the possession of the other. This is a broad right, as it is not limited to just evidence that is admissible at trial. Discovery of physical evidence means that a plaintiff may inspect a company’s accounts, customer lists, assets, profit-and-loss statements, balance sheets, engineering and quality-control reports, sales reports, and virtually any other document.

The lawyers, not the court, run the discovery process. For example, one party simply makes a written demand, stating the time at which the deposition will take place or the type of documents it wishes to inspect and make copies of. A party unreasonably resisting discovery methods (whether depositions, written interrogatories, or requests for documents) can be challenged, however, and judges are often brought into the process to push reluctant parties to make more disclosure or to protect a party from irrelevant or unreasonable discovery requests. For example, the party receiving the discovery request can apply to the court for a protective order if it can show that the demand is for privileged material (e.g., a party’s lawyers’ records are not open for inspection) or that the demand was made to harass the opponent. In complex cases between companies, the discovery of documents can run into tens of millions of pages and can take years. Depositions can consume days or even weeks of an executive’s time.

Key Takeaway

Many cases never get to trial. They are disposed of by motions to dismiss or are settled after extensive discovery makes clear to the parties the strengths and weaknesses of the parties to the dispute.


  1. Mrs. Robinson (in the Volkswagen Audi case) never establishes residency in Arizona, returns to New York, and files her case in federal district court in New York, alleging diversity jurisdiction. Assume that the defendants do not want to have the case heard in federal court. What motion will they make?
  2. Under contributory negligence, the negligence of any plaintiff that causes or contributes to the injuries a plaintiff complains of will be grounds for dismissal. Suppose that in discovery, Mr. Ferlito in Ferlito v. Johnson & Johnson (Section 3.9 "Cases") admits that he brought the cigarette lighter dangerously close to his costume, saying, “Yes, you could definitely say I was being careless; I had a few drinks under my belt.” Also, Mrs. Ferlito admits that she never reads product instructions from manufacturers. If the case is brought in a state where contributory negligence is the law, on what basis can Johnson & Johnson have the case dismissed before trial?

3.4 The Pretrial and Trial Phase

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how judges can push parties into pretrial settlement.
  2. Explain the meaning and use of directed verdicts.
  3. Distinguish a directed verdict from a judgment n.o.v. (“notwithstanding the verdict”).

After considerable discovery, one of the parties may believe that there is no triable issue of law or fact for the court to consider and may file a motion with the court for summary judgment. Unless it is very clear, the judge will deny a summary judgment motion, because that ends the case at the trial level; it is a “final order” in the case that tells the plaintiff “no” and leaves no room to bring another lawsuit against the defendant for that particular set of facts (res judicata). If the plaintiff successfully appeals a summary judgment motion, the case will come back to the trial court.

Prior to the trial, the judge may also convene the parties in an effort to investigate the possibilities of settlement. Usually, the judge will explore the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s case with the attorneys. The parties may decide that it is more prudent or efficient to settle than to risk going to trial.

Pretrial Conference

At various times during the discovery process, depending on the nature and complexity of the case, the court may hold a pretrial conference to clarify the issues and establish a timetable. The court may also hold a settlement conference to see if the parties can work out their differences and avoid trial altogether. Once discovery is complete, the case moves on to trial if it has not been settled. Most cases are settled before this stage; perhaps 85 percent of all civil cases end before trial, and more than 90 percent of criminal prosecutions end with a guilty plea.


At trial, the first order of business is to select a jury. (In a civil case of any consequence, either party can request one, based on the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution.) The judge and sometimes the lawyers are permitted to question the jurors to be sure that they are unbiased. This questioning is known as the voir dire (pronounced vwahr-DEER). This is an important process, and a great deal of thought goes into selecting the jury, especially in high-profile cases. A jury panel can be as few as six persons, or as many as twelve, with alternates selected and sitting in court in case one of the jurors is unable to continue. In a long trial, having alternates is essential; even in shorter trials, most courts will have at least two alternate jurors.

In both criminal and civil trials, each side has opportunities to challenge potential jurors for cause. For example, in the Robinsons’ case against Audi, the attorneys representing Audi will want to know if any prospective jurors have ever owned an Audi, what their experience has been, and if they had a similar problem (or worse) with their Audi that was not resolved to their satisfaction. If so, the defense attorney could well believe that such a juror has a potential for a bias against her client. In that case, she could use a challenge for cause, explaining to the judge the basis for her challenge. The judge, at her discretion, could either accept the for-cause reason or reject it.

Even if an attorney cannot articulate a for-cause reason acceptable to the judge, he may use one of several peremptory challenges that most states (and the federal system) allow. A trial attorney with many years of experience may have a sixth sense about a potential juror and, in consultation with the client, may decide to use a peremptory challenge to avoid having that juror on the panel.

After the jury is sworn and seated, the plaintiff’s lawyer makes an opening statement, laying out the nature of the plaintiff’s claim, the facts of the case as the plaintiff sees them, and the evidence that the lawyer will present. The defendant’s lawyer may also make an opening statement or may reserve his right to do so at the end of the plaintiff’s case.

The plaintiff’s lawyer then calls witnesses and presents the physical evidence that is relevant to her proof. The direct testimony at trial is usually far from a smooth narration. The rules of evidence (that govern the kinds of testimony and documents that may be introduced at trial) and the question-and-answer format tend to make the presentation of evidence choppy and difficult to follow.

Anyone who has watched an actual televised trial or a television melodrama featuring a trial scene will appreciate the nature of the trial itself: witnesses are asked questions about a number of issues that may or may not be related, the opposing lawyer will frequently object to the question or the form in which it is asked, and the jury may be sent from the room while the lawyers argue at the bench before the judge.

After direct testimony of each witness is over, the opposing lawyer may conduct cross-examination. This is a crucial constitutional right; in criminal cases it is preserved in the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment (the right to confront one’s accusers in open court). The formal rules of direct testimony are then relaxed, and the cross-examiner may probe the witness more informally, asking questions that may not seem immediately relevant. This is when the opposing attorney may become harsh, casting doubt on a witness’s credibility, trying to trip her up and show that the answers she gave are false or not to be trusted. This use of cross-examination, along with the requirement that the witness must respond to questions that are at all relevant to the questions raised by the case, distinguishes common-law courts from those of authoritarian regimes around the world.

Following cross-examination, the plaintiff’s lawyer may then question the witness again: this is called redirect examination and is used to demonstrate that the witness’s original answers were accurate and to show that any implications otherwise, suggested by the cross-examiner, were unwarranted. The cross-examiner may then engage the witness in re-cross-examination, and so on. The process usually stops after cross-examination or redirect.

During the trial, the judge’s chief responsibility is to see that the trial is fair to both sides. One big piece of that responsibility is to rule on the admissibility of evidence. A judge may rule that a particular question is out of order—that is, not relevant or appropriate—or that a given document is irrelevant. Where the attorney is convinced that a particular witness, a particular question, or a particular document (or part thereof) is critical to her case, she may preserve an objection to the court’s ruling by saying “exception,” in which case the court stenographer will note the exception; on appeal, the attorney may cite any number of exceptions as adding up to the lack of a fair trial for her client and may request a court of appeals to order a retrial.

For the most part, courts of appeal will not reverse and remand for a new trial unless the trial court judge’s errors are “prejudicial,” or “an abuse of discretion.” In short, neither party is entitled to a perfect trial, but only to a fair trial, one in which the trial judge has made only “harmless errors” and not prejudicial ones.

At the end of the plaintiff’s case, the defendant presents his case, following the same procedure just outlined. The plaintiff is then entitled to present rebuttal witnesses, if necessary, to deny or argue with the evidence the defendant has introduced. The defendant in turn may present “surrebuttal” witnesses.

When all testimony has been introduced, either party may ask the judge for a directed verdictAt the close of one party’s evidence, the other party may move for a directed verdict, or renew that motion at the close of all parties’ evidence. A judge will direct a verdict if there is no real issue of fact for reasonable jurors to consider and if the law as applied to the facts in evidence clearly favors the party who requests the directed verdict.—a verdict decided by the judge without advice from the jury. This motion may be granted if the plaintiff has failed to introduce evidence that is legally sufficient to meet her burden of proof or if the defendant has failed to do the same on issues on which she has the burden of proof. (For example, the plaintiff alleges that the defendant owes him money and introduces a signed promissory note. The defendant cannot show that the note is invalid. The defendant must lose the case unless he can show that the debt has been paid or otherwise discharged.)

The defendant can move for a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff’s case, but the judge will usually wait to hear the entire case until deciding whether to do so. Directed verdicts are not usually granted, since it is the jury’s job to determine the facts in dispute.

If the judge refuses to grant a directed verdict, each lawyer will then present a closing argument to the jury (or, if there is no jury, to the judge alone). The closing argument is used to tie up the loose ends, as the attorney tries to bring together various seemingly unrelated facts into a story that will make sense to the jury.

After closing arguments, the judge will instruct the jury. The purpose of jury instruction is to explain to the jurors the meaning of the law as it relates to the issues they are considering and to tell the jurors what facts they must determine if they are to give a verdict for one party or the other. Each lawyer will have prepared a set of written instructions that she hopes the judge will give to the jury. These will be tailored to advance her client’s case. Many a verdict has been overturned on appeal because a trial judge has wrongly instructed the jury. The judge will carefully determine which instructions to give and often will use a set of pattern instructions provided by the state bar association or the supreme court of the state. These pattern jury instructions are often safer because they are patterned after language that appellate courts have used previously, and appellate courts are less likely to find reversible error in the instructions.

After all instructions are given, the jury will retire to a private room and discuss the case and the answers requested by the judge for as long as it takes to reach a unanimous verdict. Some minor cases do not require a unanimous verdict. If the jury cannot reach a decision, this is called a hung jury, and the case will have to be retried. When a jury does reach a verdict, it delivers it in court with both parties and their lawyers present. The jury is then discharged, and control over the case returns to the judge. (If there is no jury, the judge will usually announce in a written opinion his findings of fact and how the law applies to those facts. Juries just announce their verdicts and do not state their reasons for reaching them.)

Posttrial Motions

The losing party is allowed to ask the judge for a new trial or for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (often called a judgment n.o.v.Judgment “notwithstanding the verdict” may be awarded after the jury returns a verdict that the judge believes no rational jury could have come to. Judgment n.o.v. reverses the verdict and awards judgment to the party against whom the jury’s verdict was made., from the Latin non obstante veredicto). A judge who decides that a directed verdict is appropriate will usually wait to see what the jury’s verdict is. If it is favorable to the party the judge thinks should win, she can rely on that verdict. If the verdict is for the other party, he can grant the motion for judgment n.o.v. This is a safer way to proceed because if the judge is reversed on appeal, a new trial is not necessary. The jury’s verdict always can be restored, whereas without a jury verdict (as happens when a directed verdict is granted before the case goes to the jury), the entire case must be presented to a new jury. Ferlito v. Johnson & Johnson (Section 3.9 "Cases") illustrates the judgment n.o.v. process in a case where the judge allowed the case to go to a jury that was overly sympathetic to the plaintiffs.

Rule 50(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides the authorization for federal judges making a judgment contrary to the judgment of the jury. Most states have a similar rule.

Rule 50(b) says,

Whenever a motion for a directed verdict made at the close of all the evidence is denied or for any reason is not granted, the court is deemed to have submitted the action to the jury subject to a later determination of the legal questions raised by the motion. Not later than 10 days after entry of judgment, a party who has moved for a directed verdict may move to have the verdict and any judgment entered thereon set aside and to have judgment entered in accordance with the party’s motion for a directed verdict.…[A] new trial may be prayed for in the alternative. If a verdict was returned the court may allow the judgment to stand or may reopen the judgment and either order a new trial or direct the entry of judgment as if the requested verdict had been directed.

Key Takeaway

The purpose of a trial judge is to ensure justice to all parties to the lawsuit. The judge presides, instructs the jury, and may limit who testifies and what they testify about what. In all of this, the judge will usually commit some errors; occasionally these will be the kinds of errors that seriously compromise a fair trial for both parties. Errors that do seriously compromise a fair trial for both parties are prejudicial, as opposed to harmless. The appeals court must decide whether any errors of the trial court judge are prejudicial or not.

If a judge directs a verdict, that ends the case for the party who hasn’t asked for one; if a judge grants judgment n.o.v., that will take away a jury verdict that one side has worked very hard to get. Thus a judge must be careful not to unduly favor one side or the other, regardless of his or her sympathies.


  1. What if there was not a doctrine of res judicata? What would the legal system be like?
  2. Why do you think cross-examination is a “right,” as opposed to a “good thing”? What kind of judicial system would not allow cross-examination of witnesses as a matter of right?

3.5 Judgment, Appeal, and Execution

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the posttrial process—how appellate courts process appeals.
  2. Explain how a court’s judgment is translated into relief for the winning party.

Judgment or Order

At the end of a trial, the judge will enter an order that makes findings of fact (often with the help of a jury) and conclusions of law. The judge will also make a judgment as to what relief or remedy should be given. Often it is an award of money damages to one of the parties. The losing party may ask for a new trial at this point or within a short period of time following. Once the trial judge denies any such request, the judgment—in the form of the court’s order—is final.


If the loser’s motion for a new trial or a judgment n.o.v. is denied, the losing party may appeal but must ordinarily post a bond sufficient to ensure that there are funds to pay the amount awarded to the winning party. In an appeal, the appellant aims to show that there was some prejudicial error committed by the trial judge. There will be errors, of course, but the errors must be significant (i.e., not harmless). The basic idea is for an appellate court to ensure that a reasonably fair trial was provided to both sides. Enforcement of the court’s judgment—an award of money, an injunction—is usually stayed (postponed) until the appellate court has ruled. As noted earlier, the party making the appeal is called the appellant, and the party defending the judgment is the appellee (or in some courts, the petitioner and the respondent).

During the trial, the losing party may have objected to certain procedural decisions by the judge. In compiling a record on appeal, the appellant needs to show the appellate court some examples of mistakes made by the judge—for example, having erroneously admitted evidence, having failed to admit proper evidence that should have been admitted, or having wrongly instructed the jury. The appellate court must determine if those mistakes were serious enough to amount to prejudicial error.

Appellate and trial procedures are different. The appellate court does not hear witnesses or accept evidence. It reviews the record of the case—the transcript of the witnesses’ testimony and the documents received into evidence at trial—to try to find a legal error on a specific request of one or both of the parties. The parties’ lawyers prepare briefs (written statements containing the facts in the case), the procedural steps taken, and the argument or discussion of the meaning of the law and how it applies to the facts. After reading the briefs on appeal, the appellate court may dispose of the appeal without argument, issuing a written opinion that may be very short or many pages. Often, though, the appellate court will hear oral argument. (This can be months, or even more than a year after the briefs are filed.) Each lawyer is given a short period of time, usually no more than thirty minutes, to present his client’s case. The lawyer rarely gets a chance for an extended statement because he is usually interrupted by questions from the judges. Through this exchange between judges and lawyers, specific legal positions can be tested and their limits explored.

Depending on what it decides, the appellate court will affirm the lower court’s judgment, modify it, reverse it, or remand it to the lower court for retrial or other action directed by the higher court. The appellate court itself does not take specific action in the case; it sits only to rule on contested issues of law. The lower court must issue the final judgment in the case. As we have already seen, there is the possibility of appealing from an intermediate appellate court to the state supreme court in twenty-nine states and to the US Supreme Court from a ruling from a federal circuit court of appeal. In cases raising constitutional issues, there is also the possibility of appeal to the Supreme Court from the state courts.

Like trial judges, appellate judges must follow previous decisions, or precedent. But not every previous case is a precedent for every court. Lower courts must respect appellate court decisions, and courts in one state are not bound by decisions of courts in other states. State courts are not bound by decisions of federal courts, except on points of federal law that come from federal courts within the state or from a federal circuit in which the state court sits. A state supreme court is not bound by case law in any other state. But a supreme court in one state with a type of case it has not previously dealt with may find persuasive reasoning in decisions of other state supreme courts.

Federal district courts are bound by the decisions of the court of appeals in their circuit, but decisions by one circuit court are not precedents for courts in other circuits. Federal courts are also bound by decisions of the state supreme courts within their geographic territory in diversity jurisdiction cases. All courts are bound by decisions of the US Supreme Court, except the Supreme Court itself, which seldom reverses itself but on occasion has overturned its own precedents.

Not everything a court says in an opinion is a precedent. Strictly speaking, only the exact holding is binding on the lower courts. A holding is the theory of the law that applies to the particular circumstances presented in a case. The courts may sometimes declare what they believe to be the law with regard to points that are not central to the case being decided. These declarations are called dicta (the singular, dictum), and the lower courts do not have to give them the same weight as holdings.

Judgment and Order

When a party has no more possible appeals, it usually pays up voluntarily. If not voluntarily, then the losing party’s assets can be seized or its wages or other income garnished to satisfy the judgment. If the final judgment is an injunction, failure to follow its dictates can lead to a contempt citation, with a fine or jail time imposed.

Key Takeaway

The process of conducting a civil trial has many aspects, starting with pleadings and continuing with motions, discovery, more motions, pretrial conferences, and finally the trial itself. At all stages, the rules of civil procedure attempt to give both sides plenty of notice, opportunity to be heard, discovery of relevant information, cross-examination, and the preservation of procedural objections for purposes of appeal. All of these rules and procedures are intended to provide each side with a fair trial.


  1. Mrs. Robinson has a key witness on auto safety that the judge believes is not qualified as an expert. The judge examines the witness while the jury is in the jury room and disqualifies him from testifying. The jury does not get to hear this witness. Her attorney objects. She loses her case. What argument would you expect Mrs. Robinson’s attorney to make in an appeal?
  2. Why don’t appellate courts need a witness box for witnesses to give testimony under oath?
  3. A trial judge in Nevada is wondering whether to enforce a surrogate motherhood contract. Penelope Barr, of Reno, Nevada, has contracted with Reuben and Tina Goldberg to bear the in vitro fertilized egg of Mrs. Goldberg. After carrying the child for nine months, Penelope gives birth, but she is reluctant to give up the child, even though she was paid $20,000 at the start of the contract and will earn an additional $20,000 on handing over the baby to the Goldbergs. (Barr was an especially good candidate for surrogate motherhood: she had borne two perfect children and at age 28 drinks no wine, does not smoke or use drugs of any kind, practices yoga, and maintains a largely vegetarian diet with just enough meat to meet the needs of the fetus within.)

    The Goldbergs have asked the judge for an order compelling Penelope to give up the baby, who was five days old when the lawsuit was filed. The baby is now a month old as the judge looks in vain for guidance from any Nevada statute, federal statute, or any prior case in Nevada that addressed the issue of surrogate motherhood. He does find several well-reasoned cases, one from New Jersey, one from Michigan, and one from Oregon. Are any of these “precedent” that he must follow? May he adopt the reasoning of any of these courts, if he should find that reasoning persuasive?

3.6 When Can Someone Bring a Lawsuit?

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the requirements for standing to bring a lawsuit in US courts.
  2. Describe the process by which a group or class of plaintiffs can be certified to file a class action case.

Almost anyone can bring a lawsuit, assuming they have the filing fee and the help of an attorney. But the court may not hear it, for a number of reasons. There may be no case or controversy, there may be no law to support the plaintiff’s claim, it may be in the wrong court, too much time might have lapsed (a statute of limitations problem), or the plaintiff may not have standing.

Case or Controversy: Standing to Sue

Article III of the US Constitution provides limits to federal judicial power. For some cases, the Supreme Court has decided that it has no power to adjudicate because there is no “case or controversy.” For example, perhaps the case has settled or the “real parties in interest” are not before the court. In such a case, a court might dismiss the case on the grounds that the plaintiff does not have “standing” to sue.

For example, suppose you see a sixteen-wheel moving van drive across your neighbor’s flower bed, destroying her beloved roses. You have enjoyed seeing her roses every summer, for years. She is forlorn and tells you that she is not going to raise roses there anymore. She also tells you that she has decided not to sue, because she has made the decision to never deal with lawyers if at all possible. Incensed, you decide to sue on her behalf. But you will not have standing to sue because your person or property was not directly injured by the moving van. Standing means that only the person whose interests are directly affected has the legal right to sue.

The standing doctrine is easy to understand in straightforward cases such as this but is often a fairly complicated matter. For example, can fifteen or more state attorneys general bring a lawsuit for a declaratory judgment that the health care legislation passed in 2010 is unconstitutional? What particular injury have they (or the states) suffered? Are they the best set of plaintiffs to raise this issue? Time—and the Supreme Court—will tell.

Class Actions

Most lawsuits concern a dispute between two people or between a person and a company or other organization. But it can happen that someone injures more than one person at the same time. A driver who runs a red light may hit another car carrying one person or many people. If several people are injured in the same accident, they each have the right to sue the driver for the damage that he caused them. Could they sue as a group? Usually not, because the damages would probably not be the same for each person, and different facts would have to be proved at the trial. Plus, the driver of the car that was struck might have been partially to blame, so the defendant’s liability toward him might be different from his liability toward the passengers.

If, however, the potential plaintiffs were all injured in the same way and their injuries were identical, a single lawsuit might be a far more efficient way of determining liability and deciding financial responsibility than many individual lawsuits.

How could such a suit be brought? All the injured parties could hire the same lawyer, and she could present a common case. But with a group numbering more than a handful of people, it could become overwhelmingly complicated. So how could, say, a million stockholders who believed they were cheated by a corporation ever get together to sue?

Because of these types of situations, there is a legal procedure that permits one person or a small group of people to serve as representatives for all others. This is the class action. The class action is provided for in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule 23) and in the separate codes of civil procedure in the states. These rules differ among themselves and are often complex, but in general anyone can file a class action in an appropriate case, subject to approval of the court. Once the class is “certified,” or judged to be a legally adequate group with common injuries, the lawyers for the named plaintiffs become, in effect, lawyers for the entire class.

Usually a person who doesn’t want to be in the class can decide to leave. If she does, she will not be included in an eventual judgment or settlement. But a potential plaintiff who is included in the class cannot, after a final judgment is awarded, seek to relitigate the issue if she is dissatisfied with the outcome, even though she did not participate at all in the legal proceeding.

Key Takeaway

Anyone can file a lawsuit, with or without the help of an attorney, but only those lawsuits where a plaintiff has standing will be heard by the courts. Standing has become a complicated question and is used by the courts to ensure that civil cases heard are being pursued by those with tangible and particular injuries. Class actions are a way of aggregating claims that are substantially similar and arise out of the same facts and circumstances.


  1. Fuchs Funeral Home is carrying the body of Charles Emmenthaler to its resting place at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Charles’s wife, Chloe, and their two children, Chucky and Clarice, are following the hearse when the coffin falls on the street, opens, and the body of Charles Emmenthaler falls out. The wife and children are shocked and aggrieved and later sue in civil court for damages. Assume that this is a viable cause of action based on “negligent infliction of emotional distress” in the state of California and that Charles’s brother, sister-in-law, and multiple cousins also were in the funeral procession and saw what happened. The brother of Charles, Kingston Emmenthaler, also sees his brother’s body on the street, but his wife, their three children, and some of Charles’s other cousins do not.

    Charles was actually emotionally closest to Kingston’s oldest son, Nestor, who was studying abroad at the time of the funeral and could not make it back in time. He is as emotionally distraught at his uncle’s passing as anyone else in the family and is especially grieved over the description of the incident and the grainy video shot by one of the cousins on his cell phone. Who has standing to sue Fuchs Funeral Home, and who does not?

3.7 Relations with Lawyers

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the various ways that lawyers charge for services.
  2. Describe the contingent fee system in the United States.
  3. Know the difference between the American rule and the British rule with regard to who pays attorneys’ fees.

Legal Fees

Lawyers charge for their services in one of three different ways: flat rate, hourly rate, and contingent fee. A flat rate is used usually when the work is relatively routine and the lawyer knows in advance approximately how long it will take her to do the job. Drawing a will or doing a real estate closing are examples of legal work that is often paid a flat rate. The rate itself may be based on a percentage of the worth of the matter—say, 1 percent of a home’s selling price.

Lawyers generally charge by the hour for courtroom time and for ongoing representation in commercial matters. Virtually every sizable law firm bills its clients by hourly rates, which in large cities can range from $300 for an associate’s time to $500 and more for a senior partner’s time.

A contingent fee is one that is paid only if the lawyer wins—that is, it is contingent, or depends upon, the success of the case. This type of fee arrangement is used most often in personal injury cases (e.g., automobile accidents, products liability, and professional malpractice). Although used quite often, the contingent fee is controversial. Trial lawyers justify it by pointing to the high cost of preparing for such lawsuits. A typical automobile accident case can cost at least ten thousand dollars to prepare, and a complicated products-liability case can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Few people have that kind of money or would be willing to spend it on the chance that they might win a lawsuit. Corporate and professional defendants complain that the contingent fee gives lawyers a license to go big game hunting, or to file suits against those with deep pockets in the hopes of forcing them to settle.

Trial lawyers respond that the contingent fee arrangement forces them to screen cases and weed out cases that are weak, because it is not worth their time to spend the hundreds of hours necessary on such cases if their chances of winning are slim or nonexistent.


In England and in many other countries, the losing party must pay the legal expenses of the winning party, including attorneys’ fees. That is not the general rule in this country. Here, each party must pay most of its own costs, including (and especially) the fees of lawyers. (Certain relatively minor costs, such as filing fees for various documents required in court, are chargeable to the losing side, if the judge decides it.) This type of fee structure is known as the American rule (in contrast to the British rule).

There are two types of exceptions to the American rule. By statute, Congress and the state legislatures have provided that the winning party in particular classes of cases may recover its full legal costs from the loser—for example, the federal antitrust laws so provide and so does the federal Equal Access to Justice Act. The other exception applies to litigants who either initiate lawsuits in bad faith, with no expectation of winning, or who defend them in bad faith, in order to cause the plaintiff great expense. Under these circumstances, a court has the discretion to award attorneys’ fees to the winner. But this rule is not infinitely flexible, and courts do not have complete freedom to award attorneys’ fees in any amount, but only "reasonable" attorney's fees.

Key Takeaway

Litigation is expensive. Getting a lawyer can be costly, unless you get a lawyer on a contingent fee. Not all legal systems allow contingent fees. In many legal systems, the loser pays attorneys’ fees for both parties.


  1. Mrs. Robinson’s attorney estimates that they will recover a million dollars from Volkswagen in the Audi lawsuit. She has Mrs. Robinson sign a contract that gives her firm one-third of any recovery after the firm’s expenses are deducted. The judge does in fact award a million dollars, and the defendant pays. The firm’s expenses are $100,000. How much does Mrs. Robinson get?
  2. Harry Potter brings a lawsuit against Draco Malfoy in Chestershire, England, for slander, a form of defamation. Potter alleges that Malfoy insists on calling him a mudblood. Ron Weasley testifies, as does Neville Chamberlain. But Harry loses, because the court has no conception of wizardry and cannot make sense of the case at all. In dismissing the case, however, who (under English law) will bear the costs of the attorneys who have brought the case for Potter and defended the matter for Malfoy?

3.8 Alternative Means of Resolving Disputes

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how arbitration and mediation are frequently used alternatives to litigation.
  2. Describe the differences between arbitration and mediation.
  3. Explain why arbitration is final and binding.

Disputes do not have to be settled in court. No law requires parties who have a legal dispute to seek judicial resolution if they can resolve their disagreement privately or through some other public forum. In fact, the threat of a lawsuit can frequently motivate parties toward private negotiation. Filing a lawsuit may convince one party that the other party is serious. Or the parties may decide that they will come to terms privately rather than wait the three or four years it can frequently take for a case to move up on the court calendar.


Beginning around 1980, a movement toward alternative dispute resolution began to gain force throughout the United States. Bar associations, other private groups, and the courts themselves wanted to find quicker and cheaper ways for litigants and potential litigants to settle certain types of quarrels than through the courts. As a result, neighborhood justice centers or dispute resolution centers have sprung up in communities. These are where people can come for help in settling disputes, of both civil and criminal nature, that should not consume the time and money of the parties or courts in lengthy proceedings.

These alternative forums use a variety of methods, including arbitration, mediation, and conciliation, to bring about agreement or at least closure of the dispute. These methods are not all alike, and their differences are worth noting.

ArbitrationA process agreed to by disputing parties, involving an arbitrator or arbitral panel (usually three), in which a final and binding award is made, enforceable through the courts if necessary. is a type of adjudication. The parties use a private decision maker, the arbitrator, and the rules of procedure are considerably more relaxed than those that apply in the courtroom. Arbitrators might be retired judges, lawyers, or anyone with the kind of specialized knowledge and training that would be useful in making a final, binding decision on the dispute. In a contractual relationship, the parties can decide even before a dispute arises to use arbitration when the time comes. Or parties can decide after a dispute arises to use arbitration instead of litigation. In a predispute arbitration agreement (often part of a larger contract), the parties can spell out the rules of procedure to be used and the method for choosing the arbitrator. For example, they may name the specific person or delegate the responsibility of choosing to some neutral person, or they may each designate a person and the two designees may jointly pick a third arbitrator.

Many arbitrations take place under the auspices of the American Arbitration Association, a private organization headquartered in New York, with regional offices in many other cities. The association uses published sets of rules for various types of arbitration (e.g., labor arbitration or commercial arbitration); parties who provide in contracts for arbitration through the association are agreeing to be bound by the association’s rules. Similarly, the National Association of Securities Dealers provides arbitration services for disputes between clients and brokerage firms. International commercial arbitration often takes place through the auspices of the International Chamber of Commerce. A multilateral agreement known as the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Arbitral Awards provides that agreements to arbitrate—and arbitral awards—will be enforced across national boundaries.

Arbitration has two advantages over litigation. First, it is usually much quicker, because the arbitrator does not have a backlog of cases and because the procedures are simpler. Second, in complex cases, the quality of the decision may be higher, because the parties can select an arbitrator with specialized knowledge.

Under both federal and state law, arbitration is favored, and a decision rendered by an arbitrator is binding by law and may be enforced by the courts. The arbitrator’s decision is final and binding, with very few exceptions (such as fraud or manifest disregard of the law by the arbitrator or panel of arbitrators). Saying that arbitration is favored means that if you have agreed to arbitration, you can’t go to court if the other party wants you to arbitrate. Under the Federal Arbitration Act, the other party can go to court and get a stay against your litigation and also get an order compelling you to go to arbitration.


Unlike adjudication, mediationA process where disputing parties agree to bring their differences to an experienced mediator, knowledgeable about the type of dispute involved, and in which the mediator’s recommendations may be accepted or rejected by either or both parties. gives the neutral party no power to impose a decision. The mediator is a go-between who attempts to help the parties negotiate a solution. The mediator will communicate the parties’ positions to each other, will facilitate the finding of common ground, and will suggest outcomes. But the parties have complete control: they may ignore the recommendations of the mediator entirely, settle in their own way, find another mediator, agree to binding arbitration, go to court, or forget the whole thing!

Key Takeaway

Litigation is not the only way to resolve disputes. Informal negotiation between the disputants usually comes first, but both mediation and arbitration are available. Arbitration, though, is final and binding. Once you agree to arbitrate, you will have a final, binding arbitral award that is enforceable through the courts, and courts will almost never allow you to litigate after you have agreed to arbitrate.


  1. When Mrs. Robinson buys her Audi from Seaway, there is a paragraph in the bill of sale, which both the dealer and Mrs. Robinson sign, that says, “In the event of any complaint by customer/buyer against Seaway regarding the vehicle purchased herein, such complaint shall not be litigated, but may only be arbitrated under the rules of the American Arbitration Association and in accordance with New York law.” Mrs. Robinson did not see the provision, doesn’t like it, and wants to bring a lawsuit in Oklahoma against Seaway. What result?
  2. Hendrik Koster (Netherlands) contracts with Automark, Inc. (a US company based in Illinois) to supply Automark with a large quantity of valve cap gauges. He does, and Automark fails to pay. Koster thinks he is owed $66,000. There is no agreement to arbitrate or mediate. Can Koster make Automark mediate or arbitrate?
  3. Suppose that there is an agreement between Koster and Automark to arbitrate. It says, “The parties agree to arbitrate any dispute arising under this agreement in accordance with the laws of the Netherlands and under the auspices of the International Chamber of Commerce’s arbitration facility.” The International Chamber of Commerce has arbitration rules and will appoint an arbitrator or arbitral panel in the event the parties cannot agree on an arbitrator. The arbitration takes place in Geneva. Koster gets an arbitral award for $66,000 plus interest. Automark does not participate in any way. Will a court in Illinois enforce the arbitral award?

3.9 Cases

Burger King v. Rudzewicz

Burger King Corp. v. Rudzewicz

471 U.S. 462 (U.S. Supreme Court 1985)


Burger King Corp. is a Florida corporation with principal offices in Miami. It principally conducts restaurant business through franchisees. The franchisees are licensed to use Burger King’s trademarks and service marks in standardized restaurant facilities. Rudzewicz is a Michigan resident who, with a partner (MacShara) operated a Burger King franchise in Drayton Plains, Michigan. Negotiations for setting up the franchise occurred in 1978 largely between Rudzewicz, his partner, and a regional office of Burger King in Birmingham, Michigan, although some deals and concessions were made by Burger King in Florida. A preliminary agreement was signed in February of 1979. Rudzewicz and MacShara assumed operation of an existing facility in Drayton Plains and MacShara attended prescribed management courses in Miami during the four months following Feb. 1979.

Rudzewicz and MacShara bought $165,000 worth of restaurant equipment from Burger King’s Davmor Industries division in Miami. But before the final agreements were signed, the parties began to disagree over site-development fees, building design, computation of monthly rent, and whether Rudzewicz and MacShara could assign their liabilities to a corporation they had formed. Negotiations took place between Rudzewicz, MacShara, and the Birmingham regional office; but Rudzewicz and MacShara learned that the regional office had limited decision-making power and turned directly to Miami headquarters for their concerns. The final agreement was signed by June 1979 and provided that the franchise relationship was governed by Florida law, and called for payment of all required fees and forwarding of all relevant notices to Miami headquarters.

The Drayton Plains restaurant did fairly well at first, but a recession in late 1979 caused the franchisees to fall far behind in their monthly payments to Miami. Notice of default was sent from Miami to Rudzewicz, who nevertheless continued to operate the restaurant as a Burger King franchise. Burger King sued in federal district court for the southern district of Florida. Rudzewicz contested the court’s personal jurisdiction over him, since he had never been to Florida.

The federal court looked to Florida’s long arm statute and held that it did have personal jurisdiction over the non-resident franchisees, and awarded Burger King a quarter of a million dollars in contract damages and enjoined the franchisees from further operation of the Drayton Plains facility. Franchisees appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and won a reversal based on lack of personal jurisdiction. Burger King petitioned the Supreme Ct. for a writ of certiorari.

Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the court.

The Due Process Clause protects an individual’s liberty interest in not being subject to the binding judgments of a forum with which he has established no meaningful “contacts, ties, or relations.” International Shoe Co. v. Washington. By requiring that individuals have “fair warning that a particular activity may subject [them] to the jurisdiction of a foreign sovereign,” the Due Process Clause “gives a degree of predictability to the legal system that allows potential defendants to structure their primary conduct with some minimum assurance as to where that conduct will and will not render them liable to suit.”…

Where a forum seeks to assert specific jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant who has not consented to suit there, this “fair warning” requirement is satisfied if the defendant has “purposefully directed” his activities at residents of the forum, and the litigation results from alleged injuries that “arise out of or relate to” those activities, Thus “[t]he forum State does not exceed its powers under the Due Process Clause if it asserts personal jurisdiction over a corporation that delivers its products into the stream of commerce with the expectation that they will be purchased by consumers in the forum State” and those products subsequently injure forum consumers. Similarly, a publisher who distributes magazines in a distant State may fairly be held accountable in that forum for damages resulting there from an allegedly defamatory story.…

…[T]he constitutional touchstone remains whether the defendant purposefully established “minimum contacts” in the forum State.…In defining when it is that a potential defendant should “reasonably anticipate” out-of-state litigation, the Court frequently has drawn from the reasoning of Hanson v. Denckla, 357 U.S. 235, 253 (1958):

The unilateral activity of those who claim some relationship with a nonresident defendant cannot satisfy the requirement of contact with the forum State. The application of that rule will vary with the quality and nature of the defendant’s activity, but it is essential in each case that there be some act by which the defendant purposefully avails itself of the privilege of conducting activities within the forum State, thus invoking the benefits and protections of its laws.

This “purposeful availment” requirement ensures that a defendant will not be haled into a jurisdiction solely as a result of “random,” “fortuitous,” or “attenuated” contacts, or of the “unilateral activity of another party or a third person,” [Citations] Jurisdiction is proper, however, where the contacts proximately result from actions by the defendant himself that create a “substantial connection” with the forum State. [Citations] Thus where the defendant “deliberately” has engaged in significant activities within a State, or has created “continuing obligations” between himself and residents of the forum, he manifestly has availed himself of the privilege of conducting business there, and because his activities are shielded by “the benefits and protections” of the forum’s laws it is presumptively not unreasonable to require him to submit to the burdens of litigation in that forum as well.

Jurisdiction in these circumstances may not be avoided merely because the defendant did not physically enter the forum State. Although territorial presence frequently will enhance a potential defendant’s affiliation with a State and reinforce the reasonable foreseeability of suit there, it is an inescapable fact of modern commercial life that a substantial amount of business is transacted solely by mail and wire communications across state lines, thus obviating the need for physical presence within a State in which business is conducted. So long as a commercial actor’s efforts are “purposefully directed” toward residents of another State, we have consistently rejected the notion that an absence of physical contacts can defeat personal jurisdiction there.

Once it has been decided that a defendant purposefully established minimum contacts within the forum State, these contacts may be considered in light of other factors to determine whether the assertion of personal jurisdiction would comport with “fair play and substantial justice.” International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U.S., at 320. Thus courts in “appropriate case[s]” may evaluate “the burden on the defendant,” “the forum State’s interest in adjudicating the dispute,” “the plaintiff’s interest in obtaining convenient and effective relief,” “the interstate judicial system’s interest in obtaining the most efficient resolution of controversies,” and the “shared interest of the several States in furthering fundamental substantive social policies.” These considerations sometimes serve to establish the reasonableness of jurisdiction upon a lesser showing of minimum contacts than would otherwise be required. [Citations] Applying these principles to the case at hand, we believe there is substantial record evidence supporting the District Court’s conclusion that the assertion of personal jurisdiction over Rudzewicz in Florida for the alleged breach of his franchise agreement did not offend due process.…

In this case, no physical ties to Florida can be attributed to Rudzewicz other than MacShara’s brief training course in Miami. Rudzewicz did not maintain offices in Florida and, for all that appears from the record, has never even visited there. Yet this franchise dispute grew directly out of “a contract which had a substantial connection with that State.” Eschewing the option of operating an independent local enterprise, Rudzewicz deliberately “reach[ed] out beyond” Michigan and negotiated with a Florida corporation for the purchase of a long-term franchise and the manifold benefits that would derive from affiliation with a nationwide organization. Upon approval, he entered into a carefully structured 20-year relationship that envisioned continuing and wide-reaching contacts with Burger King in Florida. In light of Rudzewicz’ voluntary acceptance of the long-term and exacting regulation of his business from Burger King’s Miami headquarters, the “quality and nature” of his relationship to the company in Florida can in no sense be viewed as “random,” “fortuitous,” or “attenuated.” Rudzewicz’ refusal to make the contractually required payments in Miami, and his continued use of Burger King’s trademarks and confidential business information after his termination, caused foreseeable injuries to the corporation in Florida. For these reasons it was, at the very least, presumptively reasonable for Rudzewicz to be called to account there for such injuries.

…Because Rudzewicz established a substantial and continuing relationship with Burger King’s Miami headquarters, received fair notice from the contract documents and the course of dealing that he might be subject to suit in Florida, and has failed to demonstrate how jurisdiction in that forum would otherwise be fundamentally unfair, we conclude that the District Court’s exercise of jurisdiction pursuant to Fla. Stat. 48.193(1)(g) (Supp. 1984) did not offend due process. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is accordingly reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Case Questions

  1. Why did Burger King sue in Florida rather than in Michigan?
  2. If Florida has a long-arm statute that tells Florida courts that it may exercise personal jurisdiction over someone like Rudzewicz, why is the court talking about the due process clause?
  3. Why is this case in federal court rather than in a Florida state court?
  4. If this case had been filed in state court in Florida, would Rudzewicz be required to come to Florida? Explain.

Ferlito v. Johnson & Johnson

Ferlito v. Johnson & Johnson Products, Inc.

771 F. Supp. 196 (U.S. District Ct., Eastern District of Michigan 1991)

Gadola, J.

Plaintiffs Susan and Frank Ferlito, husband and wife, attended a Halloween party in 1984 dressed as Mary (Mrs. Ferlito) and her little lamb (Mr. Ferlito). Mrs. Ferlito had constructed a lamb costume for her husband by gluing cotton batting manufactured by defendant Johnson & Johnson Products (“JJP”) to a suit of long underwear. She had also used defendant’s product to fashion a headpiece, complete with ears. The costume covered Mr. Ferlito from his head to his ankles, except for his face and hands, which were blackened with Halloween paint. At the party Mr. Ferlito attempted to light his cigarette by using a butane lighter. The flame passed close to his left arm, and the cotton batting on his left sleeve ignited. Plaintiffs sued defendant for injuries they suffered from burns which covered approximately one-third of Mr. Ferlito’s body.

Following a jury verdict entered for plaintiffs November 2, 1989, the Honorable Ralph M. Freeman entered a judgment for plaintiff Frank Ferlito in the amount of $555,000 and for plaintiff Susan Ferlito in the amount of $ 70,000. Judgment was entered November 7, 1989. Subsequently, on November 16, 1989, defendant JJP filed a timely motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) or, in the alternative, for new trial. Plaintiffs filed their response to defendant’s motion December 18, 1989; and defendant filed a reply January 4, 1990. Before reaching a decision on this motion, Judge Freeman died. The case was reassigned to this court April 12, 1990.


Defendant JJP filed two motions for a directed verdict, the first on October 27, 1989, at the close of plaintiffs’ proofs, and the second on October 30, 1989, at the close of defendant’s proofs. Judge Freeman denied both motions without prejudice. Judgment for plaintiffs was entered November 7, 1989; and defendant’s instant motion, filed November 16, 1989, was filed in a timely manner.

The standard for determining whether to grant a j.n.o.v. is identical to the standard for evaluating a motion for directed verdict:

In determining whether the evidence is sufficient, the trial court may neither weigh the evidence, pass on the credibility of witnesses nor substitute its judgment for that of the jury. Rather, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made, drawing from that evidence all reasonable inferences in his favor. If after reviewing the evidence…the trial court is of the opinion that reasonable minds could not come to the result reached by the jury, then the motion for j.n.o.v. should be granted.

To recover in a “failure to warn” product liability action, a plaintiff must prove each of the following four elements of negligence: (1) that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, (2) that the defendant violated that duty, (3) that the defendant’s breach of that duty was a proximate cause of the damages suffered by the plaintiff, and (4) that the plaintiff suffered damages.

To establish a prima facie case that a manufacturer’s breach of its duty to warn was a proximate cause of an injury sustained, a plaintiff must present evidence that the product would have been used differently had the proffered warnings been given.By “prima facie case,” the court means a case in which the plaintiff has presented all the basic elements of the cause of action alleged in the complaint. If one or more elements of proof are missing, then the plaintiff has fallen short of establishing a prima facie case, and the case should be dismissed (usually on the basis of a directed verdict). [Citations omitted] In the absence of evidence that a warning would have prevented the harm complained of by altering the plaintiff’s conduct, the failure to warn cannot be deemed a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury as a matter of law. [In accordance with procedure in a diversity of citizenship case, such as this one, the court cites Michigan case law as the basis for its legal interpretation.]

A manufacturer has a duty “to warn the purchasers or users of its product about dangers associated with intended use.” Conversely, a manufacturer has no duty to warn of a danger arising from an unforeseeable misuse of its product. [Citation] Thus, whether a manufacturer has a duty to warn depends on whether the use of the product and the injury sustained by it are foreseeable. Gootee v. Colt Industries Inc., 712 F.2d 1057, 1065 (6th Cir. 1983); Owens v. Allis-Chalmers Corp., 414 Mich. 413, 425, 326 N.W.2d 372 (1982). Whether a plaintiff’s use of a product is foreseeable is a legal question to be resolved by the court. Trotter, supra. Whether the resulting injury is foreseeable is a question of fact for the jury.Note the division of labor here: questions of law are for the judge, while questions of “fact” are for the jury. Here, “foreseeability” is a fact question, while the judge retains authority over questions of law. The division between questions of fact and questions of law is not an easy one, however. Thomas v. International Harvester Co., 57 Mich. App. 79, 225 N.W.2d 175 (1974).

In the instant action no reasonable jury could find that JJP’s failure to warn of the flammability of cotton batting was a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries because plaintiffs failed to offer any evidence to establish that a flammability warning on JJP’s cotton batting would have dissuaded them from using the product in the manner that they did.

Plaintiffs repeatedly stated in their response brief that plaintiff Susan Ferlito testified that “she would never again use cotton batting to make a costume…However, a review of the trial transcript reveals that plaintiff Susan Ferlito never testified that she would never again use cotton batting to make a costume. More importantly, the transcript contains no statement by plaintiff Susan Ferlito that a flammability warning on defendant JJP’s product would have dissuaded her from using the cotton batting to construct the costume in the first place. At oral argument counsel for plaintiffs conceded that there was no testimony during the trial that either plaintiff Susan Ferlito or her husband, plaintiff Frank J. Ferlito, would have acted any different if there had been a flammability warning on the product’s package. The absence of such testimony is fatal to plaintiffs’ case; for without it, plaintiffs have failed to prove proximate cause, one of the essential elements of their negligence claim.

In addition, both plaintiffs testified that they knew that cotton batting burns when it is exposed to flame. Susan Ferlito testified that she knew at the time she purchased the cotton batting that it would burn if exposed to an open flame. Frank Ferlito testified that he knew at the time he appeared at the Halloween party that cotton batting would burn if exposed to an open flame. His additional testimony that he would not have intentionally put a flame to the cotton batting shows that he recognized the risk of injury of which he claims JJP should have warned. Because both plaintiffs were already aware of the danger, a warning by JJP would have been superfluous. Therefore, a reasonable jury could not have found that JJP’s failure to provide a warning was a proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries.

The evidence in this case clearly demonstrated that neither the use to which plaintiffs put JJP’s product nor the injuries arising from that use were foreseeable. Susan Ferlito testified that the idea for the costume was hers alone. As described on the product’s package, its intended uses are for cleansing, applying medications, and infant care. Plaintiffs’ showing that the product may be used on occasion in classrooms for decorative purposes failed to demonstrate the foreseeability of an adult male encapsulating himself from head to toe in cotton batting and then lighting up a cigarette.


NOW, THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that defendant JJP’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the judgment entered November 2, 1989, is SET ASIDE.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the clerk will enter a judgment in favor of the defendant JJP.

Case Questions

  1. The opinion focuses on proximate cause. As we will see in Chapter 7 "Introduction to Tort Law", a negligence case cannot be won unless the plaintiff shows that the defendant has breached a duty and that the defendant’s breach has actually and proximately caused the damage complained of. What, exactly, is the alleged breach of duty by the defendant here?
  2. Explain why Judge Gadola reasoning that JJP had no duty to warn in this case. After this case, would they then have a duty to warn, knowing that someone might use their product in this way?