An overview of the Texas courts that may be involved in a personal injury case
Do you live in Texas and want to know where to file a personal injury claim? Are you looking to understand the courts that may be involved in a Texas personal injury claim? Maybe you have had an experience like Sally...
Texas courts for personal injury claims
- State-level district court
- Possibly federal court, depending on jurisdiction and diversity
- Appellate courts if an appeal is needed
Sally left her house one morning to go to work. She didn't know that everything was about to change. As she merged onto the highway, a massive truck slammed into her side, sending her careening into a wall.
Sally woke up in the hospital, with pain shooting down her right leg and barely able to turn her head.
There are lots of people facing circumstances like Sally in Texas, and they take their personal injury claims to the courts.
Those courts work to protect the rights of people who are hurt. The Texas court system is complex, though, and if you plan to navigate it, you must have an understanding of the challenge ahead.
Where to file a personal injury claim in Texas
Personal injury claims will typically start in a state-level district court. This is a trial court that will determine whether a person has a claim, and how to proceed with the case.
You will be best off working with your lawyer to file your claim, though you also have the option of submitting your claim yourself.
Your lawyer will prepare your claim. For example, they might argue that another driver was negligent or that a car manufacturer had made a major error in design. Whatever the case, the first claim will be made right in district court, where lawyers will make determinations on where the case goes next.
A potential move to federal court
Some civil cases can end up in federal court, even if they do not include a claim that brings into play federal law. Cases end up in federal district court because of something called personal jurisdiction. Different judges and court levels have different reaches. (Nolo does a good job of explaining with examples.)
A case is also ripe for federal jurisdiction when it presents something called diversity. For instance, if you are suing a person or a company located in another state and the amount in controversy is more than $75,000, then you will satisfy the diversity requirements of the statute.
The idea behind this kind of diversity jurisdiction is that no person should get a home field advantage. If you are from Houston and the other person is from Chicago, for instance, it might be unfair for the case to go in front of a state jury in a Houston courtroom.
The goal of diversity jurisdiction is to ensure that each party is treated fairly and that the case proceeds without a hometown advantage being given to one side or the other.
Good to know: plaintiff-friendly and defendant-friendly areas in Texas
If you know anything about personal injury claims in Texas, then you'll know that not all areas operate equally.
For example, car accident attorneys tend to do better in the Rio Grande Valley, where juries have traditionally given out higher damage awards to people who are hurt.
Other parts of the state, like Houston and Dallas, are sometimes considered more friendly toward defendants and corporations.
This is not to say that a person will always win in McAllen while not winning in Dallas. It is just to say that where you go to trial can sometimes make a difference in the outcome of your case.
For example, in a case involving a car accident, let's say the plaintiff resides in Houston, Texas. The defendant resides in El Paso, TX, but the accident happened in Galveston, TX. Assuming that Texas state law applies because the case does not meet federal diversity jurisdiction requirements, which local Texas court gets to hear the case?
You can’t just select where you got to trial. Generally, when dealing with claims that do not meet diversity jurisdiction requirements, there are 3 common principles that govern jurisdiction:
- Situs - the jurisdiction in which the injury took place
- Domicile of the defendant - where the defendant lives
- Domicile of the plaintiff - where you live
The plaintiff may attempt to sue the defendant in Harris County. This would be most beneficial to the plaintiff because the plaintiff is a citizen of Harris County and pays Harris County taxes.
However, the defendant would probably not want to leave the comfort of his residence in El Paso County. The defendant would have better treatment as a citizen of El Paso County, who pays El Paso County taxes.
The defendant, in this example, has the option of filing a motion for forum non conveniens. This is a Texas civil procedure method for the defendant to tell the court that the court is an unfair place to hear this case. The court will examine a number of factors in the interest of justice, including the defendant's ability to move around Texas from El Paso to Houston.
Forum non conveniens are often granted in favor of the defendant, meaning that the plaintiff may have to sue the defendant in the defendant's home-court.
People frequently ask why some of the simplest court cases take so long. A large part of the reason is due to the dispute over which jurisdiction is the best jurisdiction to try the case.
Texas Rules of Civil Procedure instruct attorneys how and where to file a case. They must follow these rules, or risk your case. This is an incredible reason to pick a lawyer who knows their procedure.
Where do Texas cases go after trial to appeal a ruling?
Cases in the state usually go through trial at the district court level. If your case stayed in one of those state court settings and you need to appeal it, then you will have a chance to contest a jury verdict in two levels of Texas's appellate system.
First, you will be able to sue at the court of appeals level. When you do this, you will question the process of the trial rather than the judgment of the jury. You will make arguments that the trial jury got it wrong or that some form of procedure was violated. The purpose of these appeals is to get the appellate court to remand the case to send it back to the trial court for further proceedings.
The Texas appellate system is unique in that it features an additional level that you might contend with.
Take, for instance, the possibility that you might lose both at trial and in your first appeal. You worked very hard with your lawyer, but the jury came out in favor of the defendant, and the appellate court said that nothing was wrong with your trial.
In this instance, you might file a petition to The Supreme Court of the state. This is the highest level court in the state, and they do not have to take on your case. They can choose whether your case presents a unique issue that needs to be addressed.
Only a small percentage of cases are taken up by the Supreme Court. If yours is, it means you will have a chance to make your case both in written form and in oral arguments. Appellate courts allow for lawyers to argue in person in some instances.
The federal appellate system
If your personal injury claim put you in federal court, you have the same opportunity to appeal your case if you lose.
It can sometimes take a case many months or even years to make its way up the federal appellate court system. At the top of that system, of course, is the Supreme Court of the United States. That court takes a small number of appeals, so you should not expect it to be an option for your case.
You should know that different lawyers have different skills. Finding the right lawyer to take on your case at the jury trial level is critical. Good attorneys have specific skills that they use to persuade jurors to take your side and to be sympathetic to your injuries. Appellate lawyers, on the other hand, are convincing judges rather than members of the jury. These people do much more writing than speaking, so you will want to ensure that you choose a person who has that specific skill set.
The court system of Texas is designed to provide justice to people who have personal injury cases. If you've been hurt, then you should find a good lawyer in Texas to help pursue your claims. He or she can help you navigate the sometimes tricky state and federal court systems.
See also: How to find a good Texas personal injury lawyer.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.