Jon Campisi Feb. 19, 2014, 12:58pm


It’s back to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas for a premises liability

case initiated by a city woman against the Wal-Mart Corp.

U.S. District Judge Robert F. Kelly, who sits in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted a motion to remand by plaintiff Juanita Lewis-Hatton in her case against Wal-Mart Stores East.

The case, initially filed in state court back in early October of last year, stems from a slip-and-fall incident that Lewis-Hatton blames on an accumulation of spilled and trampled produce and other food items that had been left on the store’s floor.

The incident occurred in late September 2012 at the Wal-Mart store located at 2200 Wheatsheaf Lane in Philadelphia.

The plaintiff claims that she sustained “severe, disabling, and permanent bodily injuries” as a result of her fall.

They allegedly include injuries to her joints, pelvis, thigh, hip, lower back, and other parts of her body.

Lewis-Hatton accuses the defendant of negligence for failing to remedy the dangerous situation inside of the retail store.

She is being represented by attorney John A. Spitale of Christopher L. Giddings P.C.

The dispute with regard to venue began late last year when defense lawyers Patrick J. McDonnell and Marc R. Kamin, of McDonnell & Associates in King of Prussia, Pa., filed a removal petition seeking to move the litigation to the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

The two argued that the plaintiff’s damages, if any, are limited to an amount not in excess of $50,000 and $75,000, although Lewis-Hatton’s legal counsel denied the allegation with regard to damages.

Defense lawyers sent the plaintiff’s attorney a letter in mid-December of last year seeking clarification as to the issue of damage, records show, but no answer was given, leading Kamin and McDonnell to assume that Spitale, the plaintiff’s lawyer, was unwilling to stipulate to their damages contention.

The two defense attorneys then filed their removal petition seeking to transfer the case to federal court.

In her motion to remand, the plaintiff contended that the defendant has failed to establish that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, as required for subject matter jurisdiction under federal procedural rules.

She maintains that the amount-in-controversy requirement has not been met because she filed the case in the arbitration program at Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court, explicitly stating that she seeks damages not in excess of $50,000.

She additionally noted that actions filed in the Compulsory Arbitration Program in Common Pleas Court caps damages at $50,000.

The defendant, in turn, argued that a “reasonable reading” of the civil action reveals that the damages exceed the jurisdictional amount in state court.

Kelly, the judge, wrote that in this case, the defense lawyers have failed to meet the “high burden of proving to a legal certainty that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.”

“Defendant argues that Plaintiff’s failure to stipulate, and denial to its New Matter, that the amount in controversy is less than $50,000 or $75,000 shows that diversity jurisdiction is satisfied,” Kelly wrote in his Feb. 7 memorandum. “While probative, under the facts of this case as we currently know them, Plaintiff’s refusal and denial alone are insufficient to meet Defendant’s burden.”

Kelly wrote that he does not solely rely upon the fact that the plaintiff’s case was designated for the Compulsory Arbitration Program at Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas to show that the amount in controversy does not meet the jurisdictional limit.

“Likewise, we do rely upon Defendant’s speculation about future awards on appeal to establish subject-matter jurisdiction,” the judge wrote.

Defense lawyers also asserted that the basis for its removal to the federal venue stems from the plaintiff’s “boilerplate” allegations of severe, permanent injuries, including future pain and suffering and lost earnings.

Kelly wrote that while the alleged injuries are not insignificant, he has no sense of what injuries or medical expenses the plaintiff is claiming at this point in the game.

Likewise, neither party has provided the court with any information regarding damages for lost wages, the judge noted.

“We do not know what occupation plaintiff has or how such employment has been impacted by the injuries caused by the alleged slip and fall,” Kelly wrote. “There is no colorable dispute regarding any underlying jurisdictional facts because neither Plaintiff nor Defendant has provided any specific information regarding the damages allegedly incurred, and no request for limited jurisdictional discovery in this action has been made.”

Kelly further noted that the defendant has relied upon “pure speculation leaving this Court to guess whether the jurisdictional threshold has been met under the current facts of this case.”

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals has cautioned that removal statutes are to be strictly construed against removal, and that all doubts should be resolved in favor of remand, the judge noted.

With this directive in mind, Kelly wrote, the case should be sent back to state court.

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