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The Supreme Court decided Tuesday to use cases involving a child’s cut finger and a promotional program by Exxon Mobil Corp. to determine when lawsuits belong in federal or state court. At issue is whether litigants should have access to federal court when their cases don’t meet the legal requirements but allege the same basic facts as other cases that do. The circuit courts are closely divided on the issue, which could help avoid duplicative trials but overburden federal courts in the process. In one case, family members are seeking to sue in federal court after a 14-year-old girl cut her finger on a Star-Kist tuna can. Even though their alleged harm does not add up to the legally required $75,000, relatives argue for access because the girl’s separate lawsuit alleging physical damage does. Beatriz Blanco-Ortega, then 9, was at school in Puerto Rico when she cut her finger on the tuna can and bled profusely for nearly 30 minutes. After a nurse stopped the bleeding, her mother took her in for surgery. The doctor reported she suffered scarring and a minor, permanent impairment that could get worse over time. Blanco-Ortega and her family then filed separate lawsuits in federal court against Star-Kist Foods Inc. The girl’s suit alleged physical damages and pain and suffering; suits filed by the relatives claimed emotional distress after seeing the girl’s anguish. A lower court allowed the girl’s lawsuit, but barred family members’ claims as unlikely to reach $75,000 in damages. The family, wishing to avoid local courts because jury trials aren’t available in Puerto Rico, then argued their lawsuits should proceed in tandem with the girl’s lawsuit because they rely on the same basic facts. “The issue at hand is a fundamental and frequently recurring one, with profound consequences to broaden or constrict the diversity jurisdiction of the federal courts,” states the family’s legal filing urging the high court to grant them federal court access. Attorneys for Star-Kist counter that the family’s lawsuits don’t make a good test case to determine whether federal courts should be opened up to hundreds, if not thousands, more cases each year. Typically, parties suing for personal injury and emotional distress prefer juries in local courts. Blanco-Ortega’s situation is unusual because Puerto Rico doesn’t provide for jury trials there, Star-Kist lawyers said. In the Exxon case, the Supreme Court will use a $500 million judgment for Exxon gas station dealers to clarify when large class action lawsuits belong in federal courts. Because the judgment was divided among 10,000 current and former station owners, not all of them met the $50,000 minimum required at the time for federal court jurisdiction. Dealers sued in 1991, claiming a program intended to encourage customers to pay at the pump cheated them. A federal jury in Miami agreed in 2001, and ordered the company to pay $500 million to the owners. Lawyers have said the verdict could reach $1 billion if the judge adds interest. Exxon Mobil attorney Carter Phillips of Washington told justices that Congress could clear up confusion over access to federal courts, but has not. He said the issue is significant because more than 3,000 class actions are filed each year in federal courts. A bill that would overhaul class action lawsuit procedures has stalled in Congress. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the cases early next year, with decisions due by July. The cases are Maria del Rosario Ortega et al. v. Star-Kist Foods Inc., 04-79, and Exxon Corp. v. Allapattah Services Inc., 04-70. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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