Jim Adler | The Tough, Smart Lawyer
By Jim Adler April 14, 2016


The Supreme Court has heard personal injury cases on everything from tort law to international personal injuries committed on international flights. Photo by Aero Icarus (Flickr)

When people think of personal injury cases, one of the last courts they would expect to see get involved would be the Supreme Court of the United States. But the Supreme Court, or SCOTUS, has stepped in on issues involving state disputes, insurance problems, and even international law as it applies to decades-old treaties. It is no small feat to get a case heard in front of SCOTUS, and the decisions that this court makes cannot be appealed.

The Warsaw Convention and Psychic Injuries

The Warsaw Convention of 1929 outlines a set of rules dealing with the handling of luggage and carry-on items for international travel. In 1998, a passenger on an El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. flight named Tsui Yuan Tsen had her case argued in front of the court, and it was the Warsaw Convention that took down her case. Tsen claimed that associates of El Al conducted an illegal search of her and her baggage that wound up resulting in what she called a false arrest, psychic injuries, and a case of assault.

Under the Warsaw Convention, bodily injury is something that a passenger can sue for, as long as there is some sort of verifiable evidence of the injury. Tsen asserted that she did not receive any physical injuries but that her psychic injuries should be valid grounds for a suit under the convention. Initially, a federal court ruled against Tsen and referenced the Warsaw Convention as the reason for dismissing the case. But a New York Court of Appeals reversed the decision and said that El Al was responsible for Tsen’s injuries. That is when El Al appealed to Supreme Court for a final decision.

SCOTUS ruled that if a personal injury does not meet the guidelines of the Warsaw Convention, then a local court cannot rule against an international airline in a personal injury case. Had Tsen suffered physical injuries, the court may have made a completely different decision. But since her injuries were psychic in nature, the court ruled in favor of El Al.

The Direct-Injury Requirement of State Disputes

The Supreme Court often refuses to get involved in incidents that involve disputes within state lines, but it has jurisdiction when states start arguing about activities that cross state lines. The direct-injury requirement of federal law states that a state cannot be held liable for harming another state if that state only permits certain actions but does not engage in those actions itself. For example, if Texas enacted a law that allowed citizens to own military fighter jets, then Texas cannot be sued by Oklahoma because Texas citizens are using Oklahoma for target practice. Those individual Texas citizens would be subjected to criminal laws associated with mayhem, personal injury, and property damage.

When the state of Colorado legalized marijuana, it concerned the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma. After some back-and-forth banter, Nebraska and Oklahoma decided to sue Colorado because Nebraska and Oklahoma contended that their states were being damaged by citizens in Colorado who were high. Nebraska and Oklahoma did not have an issue with Colorado legalizing marijuana for medical personal use, but they did object to the state producing, storing, and distributing the drug.

When Nebraska and Oklahoma indicated their intention to sue Colorado to stop Colorado’s distribution of marijuana, the justices indicated that Nebraska and Oklahoma had no case because of the direct-injury requirement. The court indicated that Colorado’s actions may have enabled problems for its neighbors, but the state itself is not directly harming anyone. Nebraska and Oklahoma are currently seeking other ways to stop what it calls “Colorado’s marijuana scheme.”

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, and it makes some very controversial and important decisions. When SCOTUS decides to hear a personal injury case, it is usually a case with broad-reaching implications. When the court speaks, the legal world must listen. When it comes to personal injury cases, the Supreme Court continues to change the way law is practiced in other parts of the country.

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