Lewis-Hatton v. Walmart Stores, PICS Case No. 14-0298 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 7, 2014) Kelly, J. (9 pages).

U.S. DISTRICT COURT - EASTERN

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Negligence • Motion Practice • Diversity Jurisdiction • Amount in Controversy

Lewis-Hatton v. Walmart Stores, PICS Case No. 14-0298 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 7, 2014) Kelly, J. (9 pages).

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted plaintiff's motion to remand this case back to state court because the amount in controversy did not meet the diversity jurisdiction threshold.

Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas alleging negligence on the part of defendant. Plaintiff alleged she sustained injuries in one of defendant's stores from a slip and fall accident due to an accumulation of spilled and crushed produce or other food on the floor. Plaintiff filed the action in the court's arbitration program and she checked the box indicating the amount in controversy was $50,000 or less. The complaint demanded damages "in an amount not in excess of fifty thousand dollars ($50,000), together with costs according to the law."

Defendant filed an answer, alleging in part that "plaintiff's damages, if any, are limited to an amount not in excess of $50,000 and $75,000." The reply filed by plaintiff denied this allegation. Due to the inconsistency in her complaint where she alleged damages were limited to $50,000, and her reply, in which she denied that damages were limited to $50,000 or $75,000, counsel for defendant sought clarification from plaintiff's attorney and proposed a stipulation limiting damages. Plaintiff's counsel never responded.

Defendant proceeded to file a notice of removal based on diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiff promptly filed a motion for remand to state court. She did not dispute the parties were diverse. Plaintiff's sole basis for removal was that defendant failed to establish that the amount in controversy exceeded $75,000, as required for subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1332.

In support of remand, plaintiff argued that her complaint sought damages not in excess of $50,000, and that the case was originally designated for the court's compulsory arbitration program which caps damages at $50,000. Defendant asserted that more than $75,000 was actually at stake because plaintiff denied in her reply that damages were limited to $75,000 and she did not stipulate that her damages would be no more than $75,000. Additionally, defendant contended that a reasonable reading of the complaint reveals the damages exceed the jurisdictional amount.

The district court noted that while the damages claim in the complaint was not necessarily dispositive, where the plaintiff had limited her claim below the jurisdictional amount, the proponent of federal subject matter jurisdiction was held to a higher burden and must show to a legal certainty that the amount in controversy exceeded the statutory threshold.

Defendant failed to meet the higher burden in this case. The denial in plaintiff's reply and her refusal to stipulate to the amount were insufficient to meet defendant's burden. The documents before the court provided no sense of what injuries, medical expenses, or lost wages plaintiff was claiming. Speculations by defendant about future damage awards in the case were inadequate to establish diversity jurisdiction based on the amount in controversy. Because removal statutes were to be strictly construed against removal and all doubts resolved in favor of remand, the district court granted plaintiff's motion to remand the case to state court.

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