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Jaconski v. Avisun Corp.

decided: April 13, 1966.


Biggs, Ganey and Freedman, Circuit Judges.

Author: Biggs

BIGGS, Circuit Judge.

This appeal is taken from a pretrial order entered by the court below dismissing the plaintiff's, Jaconski's, case, based on diversity and jurisdictional amount for "lack of jurisdiction."*fn1

The operative facts as they appear from the record follow. On January 23, 1962, Jaconski brought suit to recover damages for personal injuries allegedly sustained by him on the afternoon of August 1, 1961, while he was employed as a pipefitter and welder for Bechtel Corporation.*fn2 Bechtel was the general contractor in connection with the erection of a polypropylene manufacturing plant for the defendant, Avisun Corporation, Avisun. At the time of the accident the defendant, W. V. Pangborne & Co., Inc., Pangborne, was engaged in electrical-installation work at Avisun's plant under a subcontract from Bechtel. At the time of the accident Jaconski was assisting in the construction of a gas line on a "pipe bridge."*fn3 When Jaconski attempted to get a length of pipe into place it came into contact with an overhead wire. This contact caused 12,000 volts of electricity to run through the pipe and into and through the body of the plaintiff, throwing him some ten feet.

In March 1962 Avisun and Pangborne served separate but similar interrogatories requiring Jaconski to furnish information regarding the nature and extent of his injuries. On July 26, 1962, Jaconski filed answers to Pangborne's interrogatories only, which stated that as a result of the accident he had suffered severe electrical burns on both his hands and feet, aggravation of a prior injury to his left foot, and severe shock to his nervous system with residual anxiety neuroses. He also stated that he still suffered "from residual muscle and tendon damage to right hand and increasing difficulty with left foot." The extent of Jaconski's alleged injuries is set out more fully in his deposition taken on April 11, 1963. This deposition, however, was not filed in the court below until after the pretrial order dismissing the case was filed and was not considered by the court below. The use of this deposition will be discussed at a later point in this opinion. Jaconski's answers to the interrogatories further alleged only $400 in special damages.*fn4

On December 28, 1964 the plaintiff's pretrial memorandum, then filed, alleged a permanent partial disability and listed as special damages in the amount of $58,500, for loss of past earnings and estimated loss of future earnings, and $200, for medical bills. Avisun, on March 1, 1965, filed a motion to compel the plaintiff to furnish to it up-to-date information regarding the claimed injuries. At a hearing held on March 17, 1965, the plaintiff's attorney agreed to furnish such information before the pretrial conference or be barred from showing additional damages at the trial.*fn5 No further answers to the interrogatories were filed and, aside from Jaconski's deposition, no further information as to his injuries has been furnished by Jaconski.

Avisun's answer and the pretrial memoranda of both Pangborne and Avisun raised the defense of lack of necessary amount in controversy. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a). On April 8, 1965, the pretrial conference was held, but no stenographic report was made of the proceedings and it appears that none is available. At the close of the conference the order dismissing the action for lack of jurisdiction was entered.

The problem of ascertaining the "sum or value" of the matter in controversy in a suit based on diversity jurisdiction has puzzled the courts for many years.*fn6 The problem arises, of course, from the fact that lower federal courts possess only that jurisdiction which has been specifically conferred upon them by Congress. United States Constitution, Art. III; Sheldon v. Sill, 49 U.S. (8 How) 441, 12 L. Ed. 1147 (1850). In order to comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in respect to jurisdictional amount all that is necessary is that the complaint contain "a short and plain statement of the grounds upon which the court's jurisdiction depends * * *." Rule 8(a) (1), Fed.R.Civ.Proc., 28 U.S.C.

An uncontroverted allegation that the requisite jurisdictional amount exists is deemed sufficient ordinarily to comply with Rule 8(a)(1). See 2 Moore, Federal Practice § 8.11 at 1666 (2d ed. 1965). However, where the amount in controversy is challenged, the burden of proving the matter in controversy exceeds the jurisdictional minimum rests upon the party alleging the sufficiency of the amount in controversy. McNutt v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189-190, 56 S. Ct. 780, 80 L. Ed. 1135 (1936); Wade v. Rogala, 270 F.2d 280, 284 (3 Cir. 1959). Moreover, in McNutt the Supreme Court stated that even if the jurisdictional amount is not challenged by an adversary "the court may still insist that the jurisdictional facts be established or the case be dismissed, and for that purpose the court may demand that the party alleging jurisdiction justify his allegations by a preponderance of evidence." See 298 U.S. at 189, 56 S. Ct. at 785.

There is small difficulty in applying this rule when the damages claimed are liquidated, but when the damages are unliquidated, as in the instant case, there is no exact yardstick to measure recovery even when most, if not all the operative facts are known. One of the tools developed for determining the intangible factors relating to the amount in controversy is the requirement that a plaintiff must claim the necessary amount in "good faith". Norwood Lumber Corporation v. McKean, 153 F.2d 753 (3 Cir. 1946).

On its face, the phrase "good faith" would seem to imply that the relevant consideration is the plaintiff's state of mind and that, therefore, it is a subjective test. In fact one of the expressions of the rule, whether the demand is colorable and laid for the purpose of giving jurisdiction to the federal court, would suggest this conclusion. St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283, 289, 58 S. Ct. 586, 82 L. Ed. 845 (1938); Barry v. Edmunds, 116 U.S. 550, 561, 6 S. Ct. 501, 29 L. Ed. 729 (1886). But it is obvious that the plaintiff's actual mental state can never be satisfactorily measured without recourse to objective facts. Thus the basic criterion for determining "good faith" is that "It must appear to a legal certainty that the claim is really for less than the jurisdictional amount to justify dismissal." St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co. v. Red Cab Co., 303 U.S. 283 at 288-289, 58 S. Ct. 586, 82 L. Ed. 845 (1938). See also Horton v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 367 U.S. 348, 81 S. Ct. 1570, 6 L. Ed. 2d 890 (1961); Brough v. Strathmann Supply Co., Inc., 358 F.2d 374 (3 Cir. 1966). The test then is not what amount the plaintiff claims in the ad damnum clause of his complaint, but rather, whether it appears to a "legal certainty" that he cannot recover an amount above the jurisdictional minimum. Cumberland v. Household Research Corp. of America, 145 F. Supp. 782 (D.Mass.1956); Cohen v. Proctor & Gamble Distributing Co., 16 F.R.D. 128 (D.Del.1954). It follows, therefore, that in order to find a plaintiff's claim lacking in "good faith", the court must be able to conclude from the record before him that the plaintiff cannot recover a sum by way of damages above the $10,000 jurisdictional floor.

We entertain no doubt that a trial judge has the power to determine whether the facts requisite to jurisdiction exist. Wetmore v. Rymer, 169 U.S. 115, 18 S. Ct. 293, 42 L. Ed. 682 (1898). However, the determination of jurisdictional issues must always be such as to enable a reviewing court to ascertain whether the evidence supports the trial court's finding. Id. at 121-122, 18 S. Ct. 293; Shaffer v. Coty, Inc., 183 F. Supp. 662, 665 (S.D.Cal.1960).

The record before us is meager, and the court below did not state the basis for its conclusion that the jurisdictional amount does not exist. Moreover, our review of the record does not permit us to conclude that it is apparent to a "legal certainty" that Jaconski could not recover sufficient damages to constitute the requisite amount.

We are not unmindful of the mounting caseloads in our heavily burdened metropolitan courts and of the very substantial number of cases awaiting trial. In fact the attempt to limit these burgeoning caseloads was one of the major reasons for increasing the jurisdictional amount. S.Rep. 1830, U.S.Code Cong. and Admin.News, 85th Cong.2d Sess. pp. 3099, 3101 (1958). But despite that increase in the jurisdictional amount the statistics published by the Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts show that no reduction in private civil litigation, including tort cases, has been effected.*fn7 It has been contended that the reason for this unfortunate result is the inflexibility of the applicable "good faithlegal certainty" test. But Congress was aware of this test and had been advised that an increase in the jurisdictional amount would undoubtedly be followed by an increase in the damages claimed in tort cases.*fn8 Congress was surely aware of this difficulty and intended to afford some degree of relief therefrom by enacting Section 1332(b), Title 28, U.S.C. This provision states that when a plaintiff is adjudged to be entitled to less than the jurisdictional amount the court may deny him costs and, in addition, may impose costs on him. Congress "aimed" Section 1332(b) "at deterring the filing of inflated claims made in order to bring the actions in the district courts."*fn9 Section 1332(b) has not reduced the number of inflated claims, perhaps because it has not been often applied, but because Congress did enact this section it would seem to follow that it did not attempt to change the "good faith-legal certainty" test. It remains the rule, and the reason for its rather strict application resides, we believe, in the fear of depriving a plaintiff of his right to a jury trial.*fn10 Except in the plainest cases the issue of jurisdictional amount should not be decided if the ruling constitutes at the same time a decision on the merits. Ordinarily the desirable, indeed the ...

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