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High Court To Rule On Tuna Can Case

October 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court agreed to consider Tuesday whether family members can sue in federal court after a 14-year-old girl cut her finger on a Star-Kist tuna can and suffered permanent damage.

The case is one of two granted by the high court that seeks to flesh out guidelines for when lawsuits belong in federal court or state court. In the other, justices will decide if gas station owners in 35 states can sue Exxon Mobil in a long-running dispute over a discount program.

The Star-Kist case raises a technical issue over the family's access to federal courts if their alleged harm does not amount to at least $75,000 -- the minimum required under U.S. law -- but the girl's separate lawsuit alleging physical damages and pain and suffering 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; 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 the lawsuits should proceed in tandem with the girl's lawsuit because they rely on the same basic facts.

At issue is how much access litigants should have to federal court when their claims center on state, rather than federal or constitutional law. The circuit courts are closely divided, and the Supreme Court failed to resolve the issue in a 4-4 ruling in 2000.

``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,'' the family's legal filing states, in urging the high court to grant them federal court access.

Attorneys for Star-Kist counter that the family's lawsuit isn't 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, so Blanco-Ortega's situation is unusual because Puerto Rico doesn't provide for jury trials there, they 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.

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 10,000 current and former station owners. Lawyers had said if the judge adds interest, the verdict could reach $1 billion.

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 has stalled in Congress that would overhaul class-action lawsuit procedures.

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.


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