Substantive and Procedural Laws: Which States’ Law Applies?

Civil law can generally be divided into two categories: substantive and procedural. Many substantive laws are commonly experienced and understood by the general public. For instance, the tort of negligence is present in everyday occurrences such as car wrecks, and breaches of contract can occur in virtually any type of business dealing. Procedural laws, on the other hand, are often much more mysterious to a layman, simply because they regard the actual nuts and bolts of how a lawsuit is administered by a court.

An example of procedural law exists in the distinction between state courts and federal courts. Most lawsuits are handled in state court, because the only way a federal court can hear a suit is if (1) the parties to the lawsuit are from different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, or (2) the case primarily involves an issue of federal jurisdiction, rather than state jurisdiction. Though this may sound basic enough, there can be much dispute. If the case is held in federal court, there may also be a dispute as to which state’s laws the court should apply.  This issue most commonly arises when the accident or injury happens in one state, but the lawsuit is filed in a different state because of where the plaintiff and/or defendant reside.

A federal court case in the Northern District of Alabama currently being handled by the law firm of Hollis Wright provides a nice illustration of the juggling act between substantive and procedural laws. In this case, the plaintiff, a resident of Alabama, is suing the manufacturers of a surgical robot for injuries he sustained while undergoing surgery in Tennessee. The defendants did not dispute that the case should be held in federal court; rather, they maintained that the federal court should apply Tennessee’s statute of limitations, which is only one year, over Alabama’s, which is two years. If the federal court employed Tennessee’s statute of limitations, the plaintiff would have been time-barred from bringing his suit.

According to Judge Madeline Haikala, “[a] federal court sitting in diversity [i.e., parties from different states where the dispute is for more than $75,000] applies the substantive law of the state in which the court sits, including the state’s choice-of-law rules.” Alabama’s choice of law rules say that the court should apply the substantive laws of the state where the injury occurred – in this case, the substantive law of the State of Tennessee.  Already, this is quite a confusing piece of law, and it illustrates the need for plaintiffs to hire experienced attorneys who can navigate the tricky legal road. However, still the question of whether Tennessee’s statute of limitations should be considered substantive or procedural needed to be addressed. The one-year statute of limitations came from the Tennessee Products Liability Act.

“By legal tradition, most statutes of limitation are deemed procedural rather than substantive.” However, the federal court cited some Alabama Supreme Court cases where statute of limitations were deemed substantive. These cases made a distinction between statutes that merely have a limitations period, and “statutes of creation,” which actually grant plaintiffs an entirely new “legal right” (claim) that was not previously available to them before the statute was enacted. According to the Alabama Supreme Court, a statute of creation contains “a statute of limitations [which] is so inextricably bound up in the statute creating the [new legal] right that it is deemed a portion of the substantive right itself.” The TPLA was enacted by the Tennessee legislature in 1978, however, product liability claims had been brought in Tennessee for many years before 1978. Accordingly, the federal court determined that the TPLA did not actually create any new legal right, thus, it could not be regarded as a substantive “statute of creation.”

Determining that the TPLA’s statute of limitations was procedural rather than substantive, the federal court determined that Alabama’s two-year statute of limitations was applicable. “[T]he law of the forum [the state where the federal court sits] . . . governs procedural matters.” The federal court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, finding that Tennessee’s substantive laws, and Alabama’s procedural laws would apply in the case.  This issue is currently being handled by Carter Clay, a partner with the law firm of Hollis Wright, and this victory secured the continuing viability of his clients’ claim against the defective product manufacturer.  This illustration stands for the greater point that a plaintiff should consult the services of an experienced law firm with the expertise to handle such complicated legal matters.

The law firm of Hollis Wright is currently representing numerous individuals who have been injured by defective medical devices.  If you or a loved one believe you have been harmed by a defective medical device or product, contact the firm of Hollis Wright for more information and evaluation.


Additional contributors: Tyler Flores

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