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Webster v. Johnson

May 23, 2008

ANTONIO WEBSTER AND SHARON WEBSTER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RONALD J. JOHNSON, JR., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bumb, United States District Judge

[Doc. No. 21]

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court upon its own Order To Show Cause, issued on April 24, 2008, as to why this matter should not be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. For the reasons set forth below, the Court now dismisses this matter.

Procedural History

On April 23, 2008, the parties appeared before this Court on Defendant Ronald J. Johnson, Jr.'s motion for summary judgment. At that time, the Court questioned whether or not the Court had subject matter jurisdiction. Specifically, after reviewing the summary judgment motion and opposition papers, the Court expressed concern that the amount in controversy did not appear to meet the threshold amount - greater than $75,000.

Plaintiffs' counsel argued then that the injuries sustained by Plaintiffs were permanent (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic radiculopathy, reduced range of motion, tenderness, soreness and stiffness) and, thus, the question as to the amount in controversy was a jury issue. Because the Court had first raised the jurisdictional issue at the April 23 hearing, it afforded the parties an opportunity to brief the issue to address the Court's concerns. On May 15, 2008, Plaintiffs filed a two-page letter in response to the Court's order. The Court permitted Defendant the opportunity to file a response on or before June 6, 2008.*fn1

Factual Background

As alleged in the Complaint, on September 12, 2004, Plaintiffs were involved in a motor vehicle accident in which Defendant's car struck Plaintiffs' car while they were stopped at a red light. Plaintiff Antonio Webster testified in his deposition that the accident caused a paint chip on the bumper of the car that was no larger than a quarter and that there was no dent on the rear of the car. (Def. Motion, Ex. A at 48). Shortly after the accident, Plaintiffs drove themselves to the hospital near their home where they were diagnosed with muscle strain. Their x-rays showed no fractures, though Plaintiff Sharon Webster's x-ray showed evidence of mild scoliosis and degenerative disc disease.

Plaintiffs underwent periodic physical therapy for their injuries until April 2005, at which point they were released from care based on their improved conditions. The medical records (which were included as part of the Defendant's motion for summary judgment) indicated that both Plaintiffs had recovered after this period of physical therapy. Specifically, Dr. Parks wrote that as of April 2005, Plaintiff Antonio Webster "had minor complaints of occasional pain but felt overall improved" and "requested to be discharged." (Def. Motion, Ex. D). Similarly, Dr. Anakwe wrote that upon discharge in May 2005, Plaintiff Sharon Webster "had full range of motion of all areas with no evidence of tenderness or muscle spasm" and that "the injuries sustained as a result of the 9/12/04 trauma had improved." (Id., Ex. L).

One year later, however, Plaintiffs complained of pain again and sought treatment for their pain. After an MRI and EMG, Plaintiff Antonio Webster was diagnosed with degenerative changes, left carpal tunnel syndrome and chronic left radiculopathy. (Pl. Opp. at 12). Plaintiff Sharon Webster also underwent an MRI, which showed disc bulging as well as degenerative disc disease and scoliosis. (Id. at 13). She complained of a reduced range of motion, tenderness, soreness, and stiffness. (Id.). Both Plaintiffs now claim that these injuries are permanent and attributable to the 2004 accident.*fn2

The record before this Court at the time of the summary judgment motion was devoid of any evidence as to the value of the allegedly permanent injuries sustained by Plaintiffs. Concerned by this lack of jurisdictional evidence, as discussed below, the Court questioned whether the $75,000 amount in controversy requirement was met.

Analysis

When a case is brought in federal court, there must be either a federal question or diversity of citizenship. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1332. Diversity jurisdiction requires that the parties be from different states and that the "matter in controversy exceed[] the sum or value of $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs." 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The "party who invokes the jurisdiction of the federal courts has the burden of demonstrating the court's jurisdiction." Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. v. Tarbuck, 62 F.3d 538, 541 (3d Cir. 1995). Courts "generally accept a party's good faith allegation of the amount in controversy, but where a defendant or the court challenges the plaintiff's allegations regarding the amount in question, the plaintiff who seeks the assistance of the federal courts must produce sufficient evidence to justify its claims." Id. (internal citation omitted) (emphasis added).

If there are factual disputes as to the amount in controversy, the plaintiff must "justify his allegations by a preponderance of evidence." McNutt v. General Motors Acceptance Corp. of Indiana, 298 U.S. 178, 189 (1936) (emphasis added); see also Samuel-Bassett v. KIA Motors America, Inc., 357 F.3d 392, 398 (3d Cir. 2004). "[E]stimations of the amounts recoverable must be realistic" and "the inquiry should be ...


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